By Todd Hummel
For The Daily Item
As the seconds wound down at Sojka Pavilion on Wednesday night, Mike Muscala could finally break into a smile.
All season the Bison had talked about not looking ahead and not thinking about getting back to the NCAA Tournament after last year’s loss to Lehigh in the Patriot League championship game.
Finally, Bucknell can talk about the NCAA Tournament.
“We couldn’t look ahead and we really lived by that (this season),” Bucknell forward Joe Willman said. “It’s such a great feeling right now, but we feel we have more work to do.”
Muscala, the Patriot League Tournament Most Valuable Player, had 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Bucknell’s defense limited Lafayette to 40 percent shooting in a 64-56 win over the Leopards.
“I think obviously we are thrilled. I’m personally numb. I think it’s an unbelievable feeling,” Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. “We really set out to be a great defensive team and the guys really bought into that. (The Bison) really had a target on their backs and they answered the challenge.”
Bucknell’s place in the NCAA Tournament will be announced with the rest of the bracket Sunday. Lafayette finishes the season at 19-15.
The Bison (28-5) had an early 12-point lead in the second half, but the Leopards didn’t go away as sophomore Joey Ptasinski scored eight consecutive points. The Leopards were able to cut the Bucknell lead to three points twice midway through the second half.
“I think we just had a four-point lead a couple of different times,” Muscala said. “I think we got a little stagnant at times. I just tried to be aggressive in the post.”
Muscala scored 14 of his 20 points in the second half, including six in a 14-2 run that allowed Bucknell to push its lead to 16 with 2:54 left in the game.
Lafayette rallied again late, cutting the lead to single digits by hitting three 3-pointers in the final two minutes. Bucknell iced the game by going 12-of-14 from line in the final 3 minutes.
Once again the Bison defense played a large role in the win. Lafayette point guard Tony Johnson led the Patriot League in shooting percentage and the Leopards averaged 69.5 points.
Wednesday in the league final Bucknell’s point guard trio — Stephen Kaspar, Ryan Frazier and Ryan Hill — limited Johnson to just 4-of-14 shooting. Take away Ptasinki’s 7-of-10 performance from the field and the Leopards shot just 33 percent (15-of-45).
“I don’t think anybody defends us on the perimeter like Bucknell does,” Lafayette coach Fran O’Hanlon said. “I think the last team that was able to do that to us was Bucknell.”
Bucknell looked to take control of the game early behind Muscala and the play of its bench. The Bison built a 10-point lead late in the opening half, thanks to their work on the offensive glass and the bench. Bucknell outscored Lafayette 10-0 in second-chance points and 10-0 in bench points, including two big 3-pointers by Ben Brackney.
Willman finished with 14 points and eight rebounds for the Bison.
Ptasinski had 15 points, all in the second half, off the bench to lead the Leopards. Bryce Scott added 13 points, and Johnson finished with 11.