LEWISBURG -- The final everybody wanted to see is coming to a Sojka Pavilion near you.
Just hours as after Lehigh dismantled third-seeded American to secure a spot in the Patriot League title game, Bucknell followed suit on Saturday afternoon. Mike Muscala and Joe Willman scored 18 points each and the Bison steamrolled their way back into the championship game with a 79-52 rout of Lafayette at Sojka.
That means the top teams in the Patriot League, featuring the two best players, will settle things the right way: Wednesday night at Bucknell in the Patriot League title game with the winner heading to the NCAA tournament. Tip off for the nationally televised game is set for 7 p.m.
The Bison (24-8) used a huge surge at the end of the first half to build a 20-point lead, then held off a push from the Leopards in the first few minutes of the second half before stepping on the gas and leaving Lafayette (13-18) in their wake.
Bucknell became the first team in the history of the Patriot League tournament to win the first two rounds of the tournament by at least 20 points. The Bison won for the seventh consecutive time against Lafayette, and extended their streak to 14 in a row over Lafayette in Lewisburg. They still have never lost to the Leopards in Sojka Pavilion.
"We were in here three weeks ago and we played a really efficient offensive game against (Lafayette) but had really let them score," said Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen. "We really challenged our guys to step it up on the defensive end. Our guys were really, really focused."
In two meetings against Lafayette this year, the Bison had allowed 24 combined 3-pointers and the Leopards drained 13-of-19 in a quarterfinal win at Holy Cross on Wednesday. This time Bucknell extended its perimeter defense, while giving up some things inside, as they smothered the Leopards' shooters.
Lafayette hit just 1-of-9 from deep in the first half and 7-of-24 for the game.
"It was just a terrific defensive effort," said Paulsen. "We are built where we can win a game 52-50 or we can win a game 82-50, but (defense) has to be what we are about. It was a collective effort, our rotations were much crisper and we were really focused on our game plan."
The game plan looked good early when the Bison took a 20-15 lead on the backs of Willman and Muscala. Willman scored on three consecutive trips down the floor and Muscala got his first basket with 11 minutes left. After two free throws, Muscala hit a 3-pointer to make it 20-13.
The Leopards got a bucket from Ryan Willen to make it 20-15, but Lafayette managed just field goal the rest of the half. The Bison closed the half on a 20-5 run to turn a five-point lead into a 40-20 margin at the break.
Five different players scored for the Bison in the run, with Willman pouring in eight and Muscala five.
"When we play a team like Lafayette we have a size advantage and coach really stresses that we have to dictate play and take it to them," said Willman, who scored 14 points in the first half and had his 10th career game with at least 17 points although he has never scored 20 in a collegiate game. "They were playing small and I was trying to exploit that. Mike's getting a lot of attention in the post and guys are sagging in and it is opening things up."
As expected Lafayette, which lost to Bucknell in all three meetings this year after dropping last year's title game in Lewisburg, made a push to start the second half. The Leopards hit four 3-pointers in the first five minutes of the second half and trimmed the Bucknell lead to a dozen, 47-35, with plenty of time left.
The Bison were having none of it. Bucknell ripped off a 14-2 run to make a 12-point game a 61-37 rout with eight minutes left and Lafayette never threatened again.
Now Lehigh rolls back into town on Wednesday, the only Patriot League to beat the Bison on their home floor this season. It is the game everyone wants to see between the last two league champions for a right to go the NCAA tournament.
"It's going to be like a prize fight," said Paulsen. "I think the league is balanced, but the two best teams are going to be on the floor on Wednesday."