A season so promising looked to be slipping away.
Upstart Army took every shot top-seeded Bucknell threw at it Saturday afternoon and survived.
Patriot League Rookie of the Year Kyle Wilson’s three-point play with 4:52 left in the game gave the Black Knights their first lead since the game’s opening minute.
It looked like Army might be able to pull off the biggest upset in Patriot League Tournament history at Sojka Pavilion.
However, you don’t become the kind of team Bucknell is without what ESPN commentator Bill Rafferty refers to as “onions.”
On consecutive possessions Bryson Johnson hit a 3-pointer and Cameron Ayers added a fast break layup to give the Bison the lead back, and Patriot League Player of the Year Mike Muscala had points on three trips down the court as Bucknell held on for a 78-70 semifinal win.
“I thought it was a heck of a gut-check victory. I really thought we showed a lot of toughness when they went up one. We were really teetering on the ropes and Bryson hit a big shot,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “I have to give Army and (Coach) Zach (Spiker) a lot of credit for the job they’ve done up there. I feel like I’ve been through a prize fight. We’re happy to survive and advance.”
Bucknell (27-5) hosts Lafayette (19-14), an 82-69 winner over Lehigh in the other semifinal, in the Patriot League championship game at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday night at Sojka Pavilion. The Bucknell allotment of tickets was sold out by the end of Saturday’s post-game press conference.
It’s the third-straight season Bucknell has made the tournament championship game, and the 10th time overall.
Army finishes the season at 16-15, its first winning season since 1984-85.
Bucknell led for most of the way but couldn’t create separation, leading by as many as seven points with 12 minutes left in the second half. Ayers scored eight consecutive points on a dribble hand-off play between he and Muscala at the top of the key.
“I think I just had to be more aggressive and confident. Mike grabbed me before the second half started and told me it was my half,” Ayers said. “My teammates had great confidence in me. I got some confidence in the mid-range (shot) and the basket started to look pretty wide.”
The Black Knights wouldn’t go away despite only three field goals in a 12-minute stretch of the second half. Army used a 10-2 run capped by Wilson’s three-point play to take a 61-59 lead.
On Bucknell’s next possession, Johnson got open on the right-wing and knocked down a 3-pointer as the shot clock was winding down to give Bucknell the lead with 4:15 left in the game.
“(Army’s Kyle Toth) reached in on me and it gave me a real good look at the basket,” Johnson said. “I just figured the shot clock was winding down and I had confidence in my shot. It was just one those broken plays and it worked out in our favor. It was a little bit of luck, but we’ll take it.”
A quick missed 3-pointer by Toth caused a long rebound. Ayers tracked it down and pushed the ball for a layup and a 64-61 lead with 3:59 left.
“It was in the flow of the game; it was the right time of the game to do it,” Ayers said. “We do try to push the ball when we can. It was just a one-on-one situation. I knew (the defender) was going to try to reach. I knew I was going to get fouled or make a layup.”
Muscala then went to work, going to the foul line on three consecutive possessions. Muscala made five of six at the line as the Bison answered Army’s run with a 10-1 run of their own.
“I don’t want to play in the NIT again,” Muscala explained of his late aggressiveness inside.
Army cut the lead to five, but Stephen Kaspar hit two foul shots and then made a huge steal which Johnson turned into two foul shots to give Bucknell a nine-point lead with 59 seconds to play.
The game turned into a foul-shooting contest as the teams combined to shot 51 fouls in the second half, 63 total for the game.
Muscala finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds. It was his 21st double-double of the season, which leads the nation. His layup with 13:05 left in the game made him the first 2,000-point scorer in BU men’s history. He has 2,007 points in his career.
Ayers chipped in 19 points while Johnson added 12, including 6-of-6 from the line.
Wilson led five Black Knights in double figures with 21 points. Toth chipped in 13, while Ella Ellis, Kevin Ferguson and Larry Toomey each finished with 11.
A season so promising looked to be slipping away.
LIVE updates from PIAA wrestling
The Daily Item will post updates throughout the day from the PIAA Wrestling Championships on Friday
Women's basketball: Bucknell loses in Patriot League quarterfinals to Holy Cross
In winning two games over Holy Cross during the regular season, Bucknell saw very little of the Crusaders’ zone defense. Unfortunately for the Bison, they saw a lot of it in Thursday’s Patriot League quarterfinal at Sojka Pavilion.
Men's basketball: Penn State smothers Northwestern
Penn State coach Pat Chambers struggled to explain why his Nittany Lions have experienced success on the road during Big Ten play.
H.S. wrestling: Shikellamy's Pepper wins opener in Class AAA tourney at Hershey
Dwayne Pepper thought that if he had an advantage in the preliminary round Thursday night in the PIAA Class AAA wrestling championships, it was his aggressive style.
H.S. wrestling: Two area wrestlers stay alive with consolation wins in Class AA tourney
Warrior Run’s Zack LeBarron won’t forget what last year’s early exit from the PIAA Class AA tournament taught him.
Wrestling: Six Valley grapplers advance to quarterfinals in Class AA
Getting to wrestle with the best in the state was a dream-come-true for Lewisburg’s Max Reed.
Bob Garrett's Talking Points column: Time to clean Penn's Creek
It's an excellent opportunity for Scouting groups and other conservationists to help clean areas that normally get little-to-no attention.
Power lifting: Pfleegor repeats as state champion
In two short years, the Milton High junior has won nine titles and three state power-lifting championships.
H.S. girls basketball: Mifflinburg arrives at district pinnacle early
Sara Stauffer couldn't wait a few years. She and Mifflinburg's other seniors needed Kayla Kline and Julia McArdle-Coe to be transcendent players this season.
Men's basketball: Army ends Bucknell's season in PL quarters
Army had the lead for a only few moments in the second half of Wednesday's Patriot League quarterfinal with Bucknell. But as it turned out, that was enough.
Women's basketball: Bloomsburg wins 17th straight game
The Bloomsburg University women’s basketball team is making another trip to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference Final Four.
Former PSU assistant McQueary admits to ESPN he was sexually abused as a child
Mike McQueary told Penn State players in November 2011 that he was sexually abused when he was a child, ESPN The Magazine reported Tuesday.
H.S. wrestling: Southern cousins take talents to Hershey
They have wrestled all across the state, and the country. This week, cousins Kent and Todd Lane will be together on one stage.
Boys basketball: Tough schedule has Shamokin ready for state playoffs
All year long, Shamokin has had the same mentality: They want to go toe to toe with the best.
Women's basketball: Bucknell's DeBoer named Rookie of the Year
It has been a season of milestones for the Bucknell women’s basketball team, as the squad continues to elevate its level of play under second-year head coach Aaron Roussell, and the release of the Patriot League’s All-League teams and major awards on Tuesday was just one more testament to that fact.
College Basketball: Bucknell's Ayers is PL Player of the Year
Cameron Ayers entered his senior year with the unenviable task of replacing two-time Patriot League Player of the Year Mike Muscala as Bucknell’s go-to scorer.
- More Sports Headlines
- LIVE updates from PIAA wrestling