By William Bowman
The Daily Item
LEWISBURG — It has been more than a century since a Bucknell basketball team has started as well as the 2012-13 team has. After Wednesday’s 71-65 win over pesky Marist at Sojka Pavilion, the Bison are now 11-1, tied with the 1900-01 team for the second-best start in program history.
Things weren’t all roses against the Red Foxes last night, however, and Dave Paulsen made sure his team understood that after the team’s sixth win in a row. The coach also wanted to give his team some credit for surviving what he called an “incredibly mediocre performance.”
Mike Muscala filled out the stat sheet once again to lead the Bison to their 11th win in 12 tries. The senior finished with 26 points, 13 rebounds, five blocks, four assists and three steals in 37 grueling minutes. Joe Willman added 15 points, and Cam Ayers chipped in a dozen more as Bucknell rallied from a five-point deficit with less than nine minutes to play.
“It was disappointing,” said Paulsen. “To our guys’ credit we came up with enough stops down the stretch and toughness plays. But you can tell a team’s level of focus and the edge a team has by two statistics: rebounding and free throw shooting. They have been two staples of our program and why we were 10-1 going into this game.”
The Red Foxes (4-7), a team that was being outrebounded by 8 boards a game entering Wednesday’s game, outrebounded the Bison, one of the nation’s top rebound-margin squads. In addition, the Bison hit 21-of-30 from the free throw line, a 70 percent clip and below the team’s nearly 77 percent average entering the game.
“We allowed a team that gets outrebounded by eight to outrebound us and we had no offensive rebounds at halftime,” said Paulsen. “I am concerned about the level of execution and focus.”
Still, Paulsen said his team, playing for the third time in five nights, showed enough resolve down the stretch to survive. “My expectations for this group are sky high and I think we have a group of guys that we can push really, really hard,” Paulsen said. “I don’t want them to walk around like the sky is falling in. We lost those games in the last two years with teams that won 25 games. That is the mark of a veteran team, a resilient team, to find a way when you’re not giving you’re A-effort.”
The game went back and forth for most of the 40 minutes. Both led by six at one point in the first half. The Bison turned the ball over just once in the opening 20 minutes, but Marist stayed close thanks to a dominating performance on the glass and teams went into the locker rooms tied at 37-37.
Bucknell looked like it might establish itself early in the second half when it scored nine of the first 11 points after intermission. Willman and Ayers made two baskets each and Muscala hit a free throw to make it 46-39 with 15 minutes left. Marist rallied to take a 52-49 lead when Jay Bowie got hot, hitting a pair of long jumpers to push the lead to three.
Marist pushed its lead to as many as five in the second half, going up 56-51 on a jumper by Devin Price. That forced Paulsen to call a timeout and the Bison responded with a pair of stops on defene and six quick points from Muscala to take a 57-56 lead less than three minutes later.
“Coach always preaches to get three consecutive stops, that is one of our staples,” said BU guard Ryan Hill. “We focus so much on the defensive end.”
Marist came right back to take the lead again, and then Bryson Johnson hit a pair of free throws after getting fouled shooting a 3-pointer. Ayers followed with a 3 and Red Foxes never got closer than two the rest of the way.
“Marist played exceptionally well,” said Paulsen. “The silver lining is that I looked out there and there were tired legs and tired bodies. But they are going to have to suck it up, we’ve got a two full days off until Saturday.”