By Todd Hummel
For The Daily Item
To make up for the talent divide between top-seeded Bucknell and eighth-seeded Navy in the first round of the Patriot League Tournament, the Midshipmen had to play a slow-down, physical game against the Bison.
So Navy was content to run plenty of ball screens on offense and play more man-to-man defense than normal for a team that primarily uses 2-3 zone.
“While Navy might not be the highest scoring group around, they really screen and move the ball,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “They are very deliberate and they make the game with their physicality kind of ugly. I thought at times they had us on our heels.”
So while the Bison led by the 10 points at the break, they were unable to take control of the game in the first half. But a veteran group knew exactly what it had to do in the second half to not let the Midshipmen in the game.
“We knew we had to get on the offensive glass. We had the obvious size advantage, but the offense wasn’t flowing really well,” Bucknell senior Joe Willman said. “When that happens, you have to get offensive rebounds and get to the foul line.”
Bucknell out-rebounded Navy by seven in the second half, including a 7-2 edge on the offensive glass, putting together an early run to push its lead to 20 in a 58-42 victory over the Midshipmen at Sojka Pavilion on Wednesday night.
“The mantra at this time of year is survive-and-advance, and we were able to do that. I thought we defended really well. I really liked in the second half that we got on the offensive glass and we kept them off the offensive glass,” Paulsen said. “We didn’t shoot well, but we got to the foul line and made foul shots (the Bison were 22-of-24 from the line). We did a lot of things you need to do to win in March.”
Bucknell (26-5) will host Army, a 65-44 victor over American in its quarterfinal game, at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in the semifinals. Navy finishes the season at 8-23.
Things got off to a nice start for the Bison as senior center Mike Muscala became the all-time leading scorer in Bucknell history. The historic point came on a foul shot with 16:07 left in the game. Muscala broke the record of 1,973 set by Al Leslie from 1977-81. Leslie was in attendance to see his record broken.
“It was cool (to get the record). It was cool Al Leslie was here; I had never met him before,” Muscala said. “I was glad to do it on our home court.”
Bucknell never trailed in the game, but it was unable to pull away in the first half from a Navy team that shot just 22.2 percent. The Bison led by eight just 5:06 into the game, but were unable to get the lead to double digits until late in the half thanks to some poor shooting.
“They are sagging off me quite a bit, really getting inside,” Bucknell point guard Stephen Kaspar said. “We had to try to move the ball, but sometimes we got pretty stagnant on offense.”
The Bison finally got untracked to start the second half. After Navy made the first bucket to cut the lead to eight, Bucknell went on an 18-6 run to take a 44-24 lead. Willman had six points in the spurt, while Muscala got the run started with his first field goal from the floor and two foul shots.
The Bison led by 23 late in the game, before the Midshipmen went on a late run against the Bucknell bench.
The only negative for BU came with 14:37 left in the game. Navy’s Jerome Alexander was whistled for a moving screen and Cameron Ayers came out the play grasping his left shoulder. Ayers remained in the game, but was removed in obvious pain with 14:05 left and did not return.
“We could have used him if we needed to, but it was to his advantage not to. As long we could survive and not have to put him back in, it was good to rest him,” Paulsen said “He’s being checked more thoroughly now by the doctor and I’m cautiously optimistic that he’ll be all right for Saturday.”
Muscala led Bucknell with 15 points, despite just three field goals, thanks to a 9-of-10 night at the foul line. He now has 1,986 points for his career, 14 short of becoming the first Bucknell men’s player with 2,000. Molly Creamer and Jennifer Walz are the only 2,000-point scores in Bucknell basketball history.
Muscala also had 13 rebounds to tie for the national lead in double-doubles with 20. Joe Willman added 10 points and seven rebounds.
Tilman Dunbar had nine points to lead Navy, which played most of the game without leading scorer Worth Smith. Smith, who scores 10.5 points per game, picked up three first-half fouls, played only seven minutes and didn’t score.