After falling just short of a second consecutive NCAA tournament bid and Patriot League title in a devastating loss to Lehigh on March 7, the men’s basketball team emphatically responded by recording one of the biggest upsets in school history, knocking off top-seeded Arizona 65-54 during the first round of the National Invitation Tournament on March 14.
The Bison followed up their first-round victory with a 75-67 loss to fifth-seeded Nevada in the second round.
“Our guys did a tremendous job bouncing back after a heartbreaking loss in the Patriot League Championship game,” head coach Dave Paulsen said. “It was hard the first few days, but it’s a testament to the great character and leadership within our team. It was great to get a win on the road against a team from the Pac-12 and I think it validated for our guys how good we were and opened some eyes on a national level.”
Over the course of the two games, All-Patriot League center Mike Muscala ’13 created massive matchup problems for both Arizona and Nevada and proved time and time again why he is one of the most talented big men in the country. After leading all scorers with 20 points and nine rebounds against Arizona, the 6’11” big-man put together a 25-point, 15-rebound performance against Nevada.
Appearing in front a of packed crowd at the McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz., the Orange and Blue got off to a fast start against Arizona, leading by as much as 13 points in the first half. Led by three-time defensive player of the year Bryan Cohen ’12, the Bison defense stifled the Wildcats’ offense, limiting them to just 16 points in the first 15 minutes of play. Playing in the final tournament of his career, Cohen anchored the Bison defense, limiting Arizona’s most talented offensive player Kyle Fogg to just five points in the contest, well below his season average of 13.7.
“We played exceptionally well against Arizona. Our team defense was excellent and we got solid contributions throughout the team,” Paulsen said. “We will miss our seniors. Bryan Cohen had an amazing career and will be remembered as one of the outstanding players in Bucknell history.”
During the final minutes of the half, the Bison offense stalled considerably, allowing the Wildcats to cut into the lead and go into the half down just six. Arizona carried their momentum into the second half and quickly claimed their first lead of the game behind the hot hands of Solomon Hill and Jesse Perry, who led the Wildcats with 17 and 14 points respectively.
But the Orange and Blue quickly regained the lead with a three by Cameron Ayers ’14 which kickstarted a 16-6 Bison run over the next eight minutes of play. Ayers finished the contest with 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Despite their strong offensive play, the Bison got into foul trouble early in the half, allowing the Wildcats to get to the line often and climb back to within three with 4:27 left to play. Then, after a controversial blocking call, Muscala fouled out of the game with 2:59 left on the clock, leaving the Bison to finish out the game without their leading scorer and biggest shot-blocking presence.
The Bison pressed on and completely shut down the Wildcats offense for the remainder of the contest. Bryson Johnson ’13 hit a clutch fade-away three-pointer with 52 seconds left on the clock, giving the Bison a seven-point lead and erasing any real chance of a Wildcats comeback run.
“It was fun to hit a shot like that against a great team like Arizona,” Johnson said. “But at the same time it was just a shot and everyone on the team made great contributions throughout the game that were just as important.”
Against Nevada, the Orange and Blue fell behind to a hot Wolf Pack offense that shot 60 percent from the field in the first half. Despite Muscala’s 16th double-double of the season and a 21-point performance by Ayers, the Bison found themselves battling from behind for the entire contest.
After trailing at the half 42-29, the Orange and Blue managed to tighten the game considerably and trailed by just three points with under a minute left. Yet, unlike their first round game, the Bison struggled to convert from behind the arc and could not complete the late comeback.
“Nevada was a very talented team and, while we kept it close for most of the game, we were never able to play with a lead and were fighting from behind the whole game,” Muscala said.
The loss to Nevada marks the end to a season in which the Bison finished with 25 wins for just the third time in program history. The Bison will lose three seniors in Enoch Andoh ’12, Probese Leo ’12 and Cohen, but will return four of five starters next year.
“We had a great season and playing in the NIT and winning a game is a great feeling,” Joe Willman ’13 said. “Beating Arizona showed us that we can compete with anyone, so this tournament really gave us a lot of confidence and we are going to keep working hard to get to our ultimate goal next year of the NCAA tournament.”