By Josh Abner
For The Daily Item
LEXINGTON, Ky. —
Thursday’s 68-56 loss to Butler in the NCAA tournament wasn’t how Bucknell’s three senior captains wanted to close their careers. It wasn’t going to end without a fight, though.
Trailing 29-18 early in the second half, Bucknell scored eight points in less than a minute, starting a 19-2 run for a 37-31 lead with 10 minutes to play. The Bison couldn’t close out a tested Butler program, missing a chance to win the school’s third NCAA tournament game.
Joe Willman hit 10 of 16 shots and had a career-high 20 points to lead Bucknell (28-6). Bryson Johnson had nine, as did Bison career scoring leader and two-time Patriot League player of the year Mike Muscala. It was only the second time Muscala had failed to score in double digits this season.
Each of the tri-captains finished their careers with more than 1,000 points. The four-man senior class, including Southern Columbia grad Colin Klebon, exits with 28 wins on the year and 92 total, both school records.
“If we get down, we don’t give up,” Willman said. “We just had to stay with it and when you do that and you’re resilient, you can make things happen.”
The group was the first full class Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen recruited after arriving at Bucknell in 2008.
“I’ve never had more fun coaching a group of guys, never had a more unselfish, resilient group of guys. This one stings,” Paulsen said.
A defensive switch to a three-man triangle zone underneath while matching up man-to-man on Butler’s guards helped spark the 19-2 flurry but Butler followed with a 13-3 run of its own to lead by three.
Willman’s baseline jumper made it 43-42 with 6:56 left but the Bison would come no closer, failing to score for more than five minutes.
Johnson’s 3-pointer at the 2:14 mark cut Butler’s lead to 53-45, keeping the upset chances alive. Bucknell was forced to foul to conserve time but the Bulldogs hit 18 of 20 free throws in the final 4:43 to seal the win.
Andrew Smith had a 14 points, a career-high 16 rebounds and checked Muscala on defense most of the afternoon to lead Butler. The Bulldogs committed only five turnovers all game and the school has now won 11 of its last 13 NCAA tournament games, its only losses coming in the 2010 and 2011 title games.
“I just think they’ve played in so many games that they’re not the type of team that’s going to get rattled,” Paulsen said.
Butler led 21-14 at halftime as strong defense from both teams kept the game close but Bucknell’s top player struggled.
After making the game’s opening basket, Muscala finished just 1 of 9 for the opening half as Willman carried the Bison, scoring all eight of his team’s points during a nearly 12-minute stretch. Bucknell shot 26 percent in the first half (7 of 27) as Willman hit 4 of 8 but his teammates converted only 3 of their 21 shots.
Muscala, the Patriot League player of the year in 2011 and 2013, finishes his career with 2,036 points.
“This is the most fun I’ve ever had with a team in my life,” Muscala said. “Obviously it didn’t end the way we wanted to, but I still (will) enjoy the rest of the time I have with these guys until I graduate.”
While other players from Bucknell have been selected in the NBA draft, Muscala is expected be the school’s first to play in the league.
The bond between the seniors was born from Bucknell’s biggest win in school history and one of the NCAA tournament’s classic upsets — the 64-63 win in 2005 over third-seeded Kansas. That win and the school’s only other NCAA tournament victory the next year against Arkansas introduced each player to the school.
“I have just as much fun off the court as on the court with these guys,” Muscala said. “A lot of people say that but don’t really mean it.”
The group experienced the NCAA tournament in 2011 as sophomores but was admittedly “self-shocked” in losing 81-52 to third-seed and eventual national champion Connecticut. They vowed it’d be different when they got another chance this year.
“We’ve been in the tournament before and I think we approached it better this time around,” said Johnson, the Bucknell and Patriot League career leader with 323 three-pointers. “At the same time, Butler made a lot of plays down the stretch.”