For The Daily Item
Several times during the early part of the Patriot League season, Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen made mention of how the Bison bench needed to provide more than just giving the starters rest.
Now that the season is over except for the NCAA Tournament and the Bison have their coveted regular-season and Patriot League titles, it’s clear the strides made by Bucknell’s bench fueled its season-ending eight-game winning streak.
It all began after the team’s last loss, back on Feb. 16 at Lafayette, when guard Ben Brackney returned from knee problems.
“He struggled with knee pain, so he really wasn’t able to play all summer or fall. It took him a while to get to the point (where he could contribute),” Paulsen said. “Especially since in our league, a lot of the four-men are really guards. (Ben) allows us to match-up at times, as opposed to when we’re playing out of league we might come in with (Brian) Fitzpatrick or (Dom) Hoffman for a more bruising type of player (at the four).”
Brackney had two big 3-pointers in the win at Lehigh, and Fitzpatrick, who didn’t play at the loss at Lafayette, had six points and 10 rebounds against the Mountain Hawks.
Since that time, the Bucknell bench has played well, especially in the Patriot League Tournament. Wednesday night in the championship game against Lafayette, bench play allowed Bucknell to push itself to a first-half advantage and close out the game.
Brackney hit two big 3-pointers in the first half, while the Bison bench outscored Lafayette 10-0 in the first half as Bucknell forged an eight-point halftime lead.
Then with the Leopards rallying, freshman Ryan Frazier made two outstanding plays to push the Bucknell lead to from three to seven in less than 15 seconds. Frazier made a driving layup with the shot clock winding down, and then got his hand on the inbound pass for a steal. A Cam Ayers layup followed a feed from Bryson Johnson, affording the Bison a bit of breathing room.
“I thought Ryan Frazier did an exceptional job defensively. He had one key basket and a couple of key assists,” Paulsen said.
There was no doubt Bucknell center Mike Muscala was the top player in the Patriot League this season, but a case could have been made for Lafayette senior guard Tony Johnson. Johnson fueled a huge turnaround in Easton as Lafayette won 11 of 13 games to end the season — including a victory at home over Bucknell and three wins over Lehigh in that stretch — to get the second-seed in the league tournament.
The defense by Bucknell’s point guard rotation of Stephen Kaspar, Frazier and Ryan Hill did an outstanding job on Johnson.
“They’ve always been a good perimeter defensive team,” Johnson said. “They do a great job of pushing up and making it tough to get by them. The big guy in the back and his ability allow them to do that.”
The Bucknell point guards held Johnson to 4-of-13 shooting in the Patriot title game after he led the Patriot League in field-goal percentage this season. It was a frustrating night for Johnson, who was shooting 55.7 percent entering the game. He saw several shots rim out at Sojka Pavilion on Wednesday.
“It seems like the last seven or eight games, those same shots have been going in,” Johnson said. “They played great defense and made those shots a little harder than they have been the past couple of weeks. They played hard and that’s why they are the champions.”
I might have glossed over this a bit over the past few weeks, but the Bucknell women’s basketball team deserves some credit as well.
The Bison upset American on the road in the first round of the Patriot League Tournament and then gave eventual champion Navy all it could handle in the semifinals.
The future is bright for Bucknell in its second year with coach Aaron Roussell. Seniors Lindsey Horbatuck and Shelby Dunn will need to be replaced. A ball-handler must emerge as well for the Bison to take the pressure of senior-to-be Shelby Romine, the team’s leading scorer.
Romine, a two-guard, was forced to be the primary ball-handler all season for Bucknell. Sophomore Audrey Dotson has a chance to be one of the best post players in the Patriot League, especially if she makes the kind of leap she made between her freshman and sophomore seasons.
Correspondent Todd Hummel covers college sports for The Daily Item. Email questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.