LEWISBURG, Pa. – Tony Johnson sank low in his chair after a loss in the Patriot League final to Bucknell, as if he were trying to hide behind a microphone.
The shots weren't falling Wednesday night for Lafayette's quick point guard, unlike during the seven-game winning streak that helped the Leopards storm into the tournament championship game.
The run came to an end against defensive-minded Bucknell in a 64-56 loss that ended with Lafayette watching the Bison capture a second NCAA tourney berth in three years.
"It seems like those last seven, eight games, those same shots were going in," said Johnson, who had averaged 21.2 points and 64 percent shooting during the win streak. He finished with 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting but added six rebounds and four assists.
"Give them all the credit in the world. They play hard," Johnson said. "That's why they're the champions."
Conference player of the year Mike Muscala scored six of his 20 points during a decisive second-half stretch, and formed a potent frontcourt duo with Joe Willman (14 points and eight boards) for the top-seeded Bison (28-5). Muscala also had 11 rebounds.
Just like two years ago, Bucknell beat Lafayette (19-15) on its home floor to advance.
"We're thrilled," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said with a hoarse voice. "I know personally, I'm numb."
Joey Ptasinski had 15 points for Lafayette, including several buckets during a key second-half sequence that helped narrow a 12-point deficit to single digits. Ptasinski's layup off a backdoor cut drew the Leopards within 41-38 with 7:17 left.
That's when the 6-foot-11 Muscala took over, hitting turnaround jumpers and dominating the post during a 10-2 run that extended the lead to 51-40 with 3:52 left.
"It was hard to stop them. They can score on so many levels," Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon said. "They can score inside, they can score outside and in the midrange game."
The Bison are pretty good on defense, too. They held Lafayette to 7-of-24-shooting (29 percent) in the first half, before the Leopards managed to improve after halftime to finish at 40 percent for the game.
Seldom-used reserve Ben Brackney added two 3-pointers during a key first-half run that helped the brainy central Pennsylvania school secure its sixth NCAA appearance.
Bryce Scott's 3 from the wing got Lafayette within 62-56 with 21 seconds left, but Brackney (eight points) hit two free throws with 14 seconds left to seal the victory.
The Bucknell campus might have been on spring break, but the students in town rushed the court anyway.
The Bison hosted the Patriot League title game last year but lost to Lehigh, which eventually went on to make headlines for upsetting powerhouse Duke as a 15th seed in the NCAA tournament. Until then, Bucknell held the mantle of the Patriot League's NCAA darlings for its upset of Kansas in the 2005 tournament.
It's time for Bucknell to dream once again.
"I wish Bucknell the best," Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon. "I hope they win a couple games" (in the NCAAs).
The Bison came out victorious in a chippy game between two teams that had split the season series. The Bison snapped Lafayette's seven-game winning streak that started with a 63-62 win Feb. 16 over Bucknell in Easton.
Muscala was named the tournament MVP, and he set a league record with 38 rebounds over his three games in the tourney.
On Wednesday, Willman and Muscala outmuscled Lafayette down low early before Bucknell started missing looks inside.
Lafayette took advantage, with Ptasinski the catalyst. He scored all his points in the second half, but the Leopards couldn't get any closer than three down the stretch.
Give Muscala, Willman and guard Cameron Ayers (nine points, six rebounds) much of the credit. The trio led the way on the late 10-2 run, capped by the workmanlike Willman's putback for an 11-point lead with less than 4 minutes to go.
Raucous Bucknell fans at one point during the run pleaded for Muscala to get the ball in the post. Ayers obliged and found Muscala, whose high-arcing jumper bounced off the rim before falling into the hoop.
Playing his last game on his home floor, Muscala turned to the orange-clad Bucknell fans, flexed his muscles and let out an enthusiastic yell as he turned back up the court to play defense.
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