LEWISBURG — As he carefully climbed the ladder, Dave Paulsen had a crooked little grin on his face, the kind you get when your childhood dream comes true.
Funny thing about the Bucknell men's coach: he never wanted to be a big league ballplayer or a football player. All he ever wanted to be was a college basketball coach.
Ever since he saw Digger Phelps will Notre Dame to a victory to snap mighty UCLA's 88-game win streak, Paulsen wanted to be a basketball coach. And even though he's been to the top once before, leading his alma mater Williams to a Division III national title, his goal as a youngster was to lead a Division I team to the NCAA tournament.
Well, he's done that now. It hasn't been easy, though.
"It's been a long journey, especially considering we where we were, just 7-23 two years ago," he said. "It's nice to reward the fans and (athletic director) John Hardt, (associate director of athletics) Tim Pavlechko — the people who gave me a chance to come to Bucknell."
Succeeding a legend like Pat Flannery, who coached the Bison to a pair of NCAA tournament wins that are still the only such victories in the history on the Patriot League, Paulsen knew it wasn't going to all peaches and cream from the start.
But it was what he always wanted to do.
"When I was 10 I watched Notre Dame break UCLA's streak and there aren't a lot of TV stations at that point," said Paulsen. "But they went in and you saw Digger Phelps on the board and you saw into his huddle and I said, 'That's it. I want to be a Division I basketball coach.
"The dream of any coach is take a team to the NCAA tournament. It's unbelievably gratifying, even more so because we didn't have the type of success early on that we would have hoped."
Bucknell went the aforementioned 7-23 in Paulsen's first season and the Bison won just a single game away from Sojka Pavilion. They started to turn the corner a year ago, getting better performance in practice according to Paulsen, which translated into nine conference wins and a jump from seven to 14 overall wins.
But the Bison lost in the Patriot League quarterfinal at home, leaving them with a bitter taste.
This season things came together after a slow, 2-6 start. Since the rough stretch in November, the Bison have been as good as any team in the nation, going perfect at home with only road losses at Boston College and Army — Bucknell's lone league blemish in 17 games — keeping them from running the table. Since Dec. 1, the Bison are 23-2; they're 20-1 since Christmas.
As expected, things were bit tougher in the Patriot League tournament. After sweeping the second half of league play, the Bison steam rolled Army in the quarterfinals, then held off defending champion Lehigh in the semifinals before pulling away from Lafayette in the second half of the title game on Friday afternoon.
"We told them, 'We're not going to win three games in a row in the tournament playing pretty,'" Paulsen said. "We're going to have to win one close, grinder game. We had to go through what we went through with Lehigh, where things got a little bit scary."