LEWISBURG -- Goliaths beware! Bucknell has its dancing shoes on and its bringing its slingshot back to the NCAA tournament.
For the first time since upsetting Kansas and Arkansas in consecutive tournaments in 2005 and 2006, the Bison are part of March Madness, capping off a dominating run in the Patriot League on Friday afternoon.
Mike Muscala scored 18 points and Bucknell led wire-to-wire for the second game in a row as the Bison clinched their fifth NCAA tournament bid all-time with a 72-57 victory over Lafayette in front of 4,271 fans at a jam-packed Sojka Pavilion.
The victory improves Bucknell to 25-8 overall, the second most wins in school history, and erases memories of coach Dave Paulsen's first season when the Bison went 7-23 just two years ago.
"This is my 17th year as a head coach," said Paulsen. "I've never had a group that has practiced harder, with more focus, and was more coachable, and you want that rewarded."
Bucknell's reward is its third Patriot League title since 2005 and a berth in the NCAA field. The full field of 68 will be announced Sunday night and the Bison, who have won 23 of 25 games since Dec. 1.
Muscala, the most decorated of Bison (league Player of the Year, tournament MVP, first-team all-league and all-academic) would trade all his accolades for what he and his teammates accomplished.
"My only goal for this year was what we did (Friday), to win a championship," he said.
Lafayette (13-19), the first team not seeded in the top four to reach the Patriot League tournament, put up a game fight, but the Bison just had too much. They had too much balance on offense, too much intensity on defense, and too much fan support from a raucous crowd, the third largest in Sojka history.
"They are a very good basketball team," said Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlan, whose team lost in the final for the second year in a row. "You have to pick your poison when you defend them."
And while the Bison scored 72 points, it was defense, which has become this team's trademark, that led Bucknell to its 16th win in 17 Patriot League games this year.
Bucknell limited Lafayette to just four 3-pointers in 18 tries. Jim Mower, who hit the game-winner in an upset at American, was 0-for-3. The Leopards shot just 34.6 percent.
The first half was a battle of big men as Muscala went head-to-head with Lafayette forward Jared Mintz. Both had 13 by intermission, hitting a combined nine of 11 shots, and the Bison led by four.
In the second half both teams cranked up the defensive intensity, but Bucknell used a quick 8-3 spurt to turn the 39-34 halftime lead into a 47-36 lead less than three minutes into the second half. After scoring 34 points in the first 20 minutes, the Leopards managed just 23 in the second half.
"The thing that has made us good, we pride ourselves on being the best defensive team in the league," said Paulsen.
"In the second half we did a better job of keeping them from getting open looks from 3," said senior G.W. Boon.
The Bison limited the Leopards to just eight field goals in the second half, but Lafayette tried to stick around. The Leopards got within eight when Mower got loose for a one-and-one, but the Bison responded on the other end with a triple from freshman Cameron Ayers, who was named to the all-tournament team along with Bryson Johnson. The 3-pointer put the Bucknell back up 11 and Lafayette never got closer than 10 the rest of the way.