By William Bowman
The Daily Item
UNIVERSITY PARK —
The fourth word out of Dave Paulsen’s mouth following Bucknell’s 60-57 loss at Penn State on Friday afternoon was “disappointing.” The fact that it took the Bison coach that long to say it was the only surprise.
Penn State, playing without its best player for the first time this year, handed the Bison their first loss of the season thanks a scorching-hot second half shooting the ball and a shut-down defensive effort on Bucknell center Mike Muscala. The Nittany Lions (3-2), who hit just 5-of-31 shots in the first half, buried 17-of-26 in the second half, including 5-of-6 three-pointers to rally for the win.
“That’s a real disappointing loss for us,” said Paulsen. “I thought we were ready and prepared, and we certainly want to give a lot of credit to Penn State. We knew they were going to play with a lot of emotion after Tim Frazier went down, but I thought they were the physically tougher team.”
“I thought our kids played hard,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers. “That’s a great team. (Bucknell is) going to be an NCAA tournament team, no question, and our kids played hard — that’s the bottom line. They don’t let missing shots or turning the ball over affect their effort.”
Bucknell, looking for its first 6-0 start since the 1983-84 season, turned the ball over a dozen times in the first half and allowed Penn State 10 offensive boards, eliminating a chance for the Bison to create some separation. The Bison led by six, but the lead could have been much larger after the Nittany Lions hit just 16 percent from the field.
Chambers, who was familiar with Bucknell’s personnel after he saw them twice as the coach at Boston University early in their careers, devised a brilliant game plan to keep the ball out of Muscala’s hands. When the Lions’ shots finally started to fall, the Bison ran into some trouble.
Muscala, who has averaged 10 shots a game over his stellar four-year career, got off just four shots in 37 minutes against the Nittany Lions. He still managed 10 points and 12 rebounds for his fourth double-double this season and 28th of his career. After the game, he took the blame for not getting off shots.
“I didn’t do a good job of getting myself in better position and handling the double team,” Muscala said after he moved within five career points of 1,500.
Paulsen quickly deflected some of the heat from Muscala, saying, “Mike got pushed off the post all night, but our guards have to do a better job getting him the ball. We need to do it quicker, deeper, better and more often.”
“He is so talented and I watched so much film on him and saw him twice at Boston and we just tried to make him uncomfortable,” Chambers said of Muscala. “We tried to beat him to his spots and do some different things on coverages.”
Bucknell had a chance to create some space in the first half thanks to Penn State’s poor shooting, but the Bison made only five goals themselves. Bryson Johnson hit two 3-pointers, and Muscala hit a bucket inside as Bucknell took a 10-2 lead.
Penn State never let it bother them, going into the half down just six (22-16) thanks to its physical play.
“We practice every day like we’re not making shots,” said Chambers, “but I had a great Knute Rockne (speech) at halftime: Keep shooting.”
The Nittany Lions did just that. Penn State made 13 of its first 18 to start the second half. It scored on seven consecutive possessions and 9-of-10 at one point. Brandon Taylor, starting in place of injured All-Big Ten guard Frazier, hit a pair of 3s to start the half, but the Bison were able to maintain their lead.
With 12 minutes left Penn State drew even for the first time since it was 0-0. Moments later, Jermaine Marshall missed two free throws, but the Nittany Lions got another offensive rebound and Marshall then banked in a 3-pointer from the top of the key as the shot clock went off to give PSU its first lead at 37-36. Penn State tried to pull away behind D.J. Newbill (10 points) and Taylor (17).
Twice Penn State pushed its lead to seven and both times Bucknell tried to fight back. The dagger came moments after Cameron Ayers hit a 3-pointer on one end to make it a four-point game with four minutes left, only to have Marshall hit another 3 late in the shot clock, a shot that bounced on the rim four times before falling in.
Bucknell got within 2 with eight seconds left on another 3 by Ayers, but his shot at the buzzer to tie fell short and Penn State escaped with its 12th consecutive win in the series.