By Todd Hummel
For The Daily Item
There were Moose calls, the Willmen and even the Canadian National Anthem to honor the Bucknell University seniors before Sunday afternoon’s game with Holy Cross at Sojka Pavilion.
The Bucknell seniors then showed why they are one game away from being the most successful class in program history, putting together one of their most complete performances of the season, in a 74-57 Patriot League victory.
“It was great win for us. I thought we played with great energy on the defensive end. We really moved the ball the way we are capable of and really got into an offensive flow,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “(Offensive flow) is something that has eluded us at times this year as we’ve taken every team’s best shot.”
There were moose antlers in the stands for Mike Muscala, several members of Joe Willman’s family and parts of the student section had on “Willmen” T-shirts with Willman’s face on it, and a Bucknell student sang the Canadian National Anthem before the game in honor of Bryson Johnson, who hails from Pictou, Nova Scotia.
It’s a senior class that’s won 87 games, tying the class of 2007 for the most in school history.
“I can’t think of four players that more embody the values of our program and what we are about,” Paulsen said. “It’s about unselfishness, doing whatever the team needs, and everyone supporting one another. It’s been an honor to coach them, and hopefully I’ll be coaching them for another month or so.”
With a win at home over American on Wednesday, the Bison (23-5 overall, 10-2 Patriot League) can clinch the regular season title. It would be the Bucknell’s third consecutive regular-season crown, a Patriot League record.
Holy Cross dropped to 11-15, 3-8. It was Holy Cross’ ninth loss in its last 10 games.
“It’s hard to keep going when the ball isn’t going in the basket. It’s been a rough year in 2013 for us; 2012 was a whole lot better (Holy Cross started the season 6-6),” Holy Cross coach Milan Brown said. “The guys aren’t going to quit. That’s just not in them.”
The Bison started the game with the Crusaders with a plan for Holy Cross senior forward Dave Dudzinski, who torched Bucknell for 26 points in the Bison’s 65-58 victory in Worchester back on Jan. 26. After covering Dudzinski straight-up in the first meeting, Bucknell doubled down on the big man Sunday and made a concerted effort to attack him inside.
“We worked a lot on post D (in practice). We didn’t double him in Worchester, but we did (Sunday). I think we got some turnovers and it disrupted his rhythm a little bit,” Paulsen said. “The best way to stop a guy from scoring is to attack him on the other end. We made a concerted effort to get the ball inside (early in the game) and attack the offensive glass.”
“Anytime I got the ball in the post, the guards were crashing down,” Dudzinski said.
Dudzinski played only nine minutes in the first half with foul trouble, meanwhile Muscala scored seven of Bucknell’s first 11 points as the Bison built a double-digit lead 10 minutes into the game.
“It was an emotional day. All of us were really revved up and our teammates were really supportive,” Willman said. “We had to treat it as another game we needed to win. I think we came out pretty poised.”
Dudzinski, who leads the Crusaders in scoring at 15.5 points per game, scored just four points, his lowest output of the season.
“He hurt us the first game so it was one of the big things on my mind,” Muscala said. “The guards did a good job of doubling him. The guards did a real good job of calling out the down screens and the cross screens because that’s how he gets a lot of his post touches. We were able to fight through those (screens) and not let him get good post positioning.”
Bucknell looked to be in control against the Crusaders, building a 15-point lead after a Ryan Fitzpatrick jumper with 4:27 left in the first half gave the Bison a 29-14 advantage.
However, the Crusaders ripped off eight consecutive points to cut the Bucknell lead to seven at halftime.
“I think they had 14 points at the under four-minute media timeout and they scored 10 more points before halftime,” Paulsen said. “That was very disconcerting to me. It was a lack of focus in defensive transition. I was disappointed in that defensive effort (at the end of the half).”
Muscala scored five consecutive points to start the second half — on a nifty spin move inside and a 3-pointer from the top of the key — to spark a 17-4 run that pushed the Bucknell lead to 47-28 after a Muscala three-point play with 13:51 left.
“I thought we did a good job of fighting those guys,” Brown said. “Anytime we made a mistake they made us pay.”
Muscala had a game-high 25 points on 11-of-16 shooting for the Bison. He is just 33 points from Al Leslie’s school-record of 1,973 points. He also tied Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum’s Patriot League-record of 103 double-digit scoring games.
“Muscala came out with a purpose. Once he started to make shots and some post moves early, you could tell he was in rhythm. You had to figure on senior day, he would be the one to say, ‘Get on my back,’ and that’s exactly what happened,” Brown said. “Anytime you have a guy that has a chance to have his named called by the commissioner of the NBA, you know he’s going to be a good player. You just have to tip your hat to him.”
Cameron Ayers added 15 points, including shooting 4-of-5 from behind the arc. Ayers is 9-of-12 from 3-point range over his last three games. Willman added 14 points and nine boards.
Justin Burrell led Holy Cross with 16 points, while Phil Beans chipped in 15 points and seven rebounds off the bench.