LEWISBURG, Pa. - Senior center Mike Muscala collected 16 points and 15 rebounds, and his two game-clinching charity tosses with eight seconds remaining helped him break the Bucknell career record for made free throws while giving the Bison a hard-fought 61-56 victory over George Mason in their home opener Tuesday night at Sojka Pavilion. Bucknell is now 2-0 for the first time since the 2007-08 season, with the two teams coming against top-quality competition in Purdue and George Mason.
Bryson Johnson also scored 16 points and Joe Willman added 10 for the Bison, who won their home opener for the fourth straight year and improved to 99-32 all-time at Sojka Pavilion. Sherrod Wright scored 16 for George Mason, which finished 24-9 a year ago and had just beaten Virginia in its season debut on Friday.
Bucknell never trailed in the game and led by double figures for a good portion of the second half, despite having to deal with intense full-court pressure all night against the long, athletic Patriots. The Bison shot 61.1 percent from the floor en route to a 31-27 halftime lead, but they started a bit slow in the second half.
Bucknell's lead was just 33-31 and it still had not made a field goal three-and-a-half minutes into the second period, but Johnson got the Bison going with a 4-point play. That ignited a 15-4 run that resulted in a 48-35 lead with 9:30 to play.
Freshman guard Ryan Frazier, who gave the team 15 strong minutes off the bench in his collegiate debut, hit a 15-foot jumper for his first career points at the 10:44 mark, but the Bison would not attempt another field goal for nearly six minutes. Part of the reason for that drought was George Mason's super-aggressive defense, which did force some turnovers but also resulted in the Patriots piling up the fouls. Even though the Bison were not getting looks at the basket, at the end of that six-minute period they still had a 10-point lead thanks to 10 straight made free throws.
At the four-minute mark Brian Fitzpatrick hit 1 of 2 at the line to give Bucknell a 12-point cushion at 56-44, but the explosive Patriots got back in the game in a flash. Patrick Holloway hit a 3-pointer in transition, the Bison turned the ball over against the press, and on the ensuing inbounds play Holloway canned another three to make it 56-50. Bryon Allen then came up with a steal and scored on a breakaway layup, giving George Mason eight points in just 19 seconds.
With its lead cut to just four, Cameron Ayers hit perhaps the biggest shot of the night for the Bison, a late-shot-clock 3-pointer from the top of the key that made it a 59-52 game with 2:21 to play.
Still George Mason was not done. Layups by Wright and Allen made it a 59-56 game with 1:17 to play. Bucknell burned most of the shot clock at the other end, but two misses gave the Patriots a chance to tie it in the closing seconds.
This time is was Bucknell's turn for a big defensive stand. With 10 seconds remaining Johnson heavily contested Holloway's off-balance 3-point attempt, and Muscala was in perfect position for the rebound while being fouled from behind. Muscala calmly swished both free throws - the 401st and 402nd of his career - to make it a two-possession game with eight seconds left.
Bill Courtney held the previous school mark for made free throws with 400. Muscala came into the game just six shy of that record, and he went 8-for-10 on the night. That was part of a 22-for-29 performance by the Bison, who outscored George Mason 22-5 from the stripe.
Bucknell finished with a 33-26 rebounding edge, its second straight game outrebounding its opponent. The Bison went just 5-for-20 from floor in the second half but countered that with a 17-for-21 showing at the foul line.
After struggling from the 3-point arc in the opener at Purdue, Bucknell made 7 of 12 in this one. Johnson (4-7) and Ayers (3-4) combined for all seven treys.
Fitzpatrick made an impact off the bench in just six minutes. He collected four rebounds, including two on the offensive glass, and went 5-for-6 from the line in the second half. Frazier had two points and a team-high three assists in his 15 minutes.
The Bison did commit 16 turnovers, but they also forced 11 and held George Mason to 40.0 percent shooting from the field. The Patriots shot 54.5 percent against Virginia in their first contest.
"This was a really good early season win against a terrific team," said coach Dave Paulsen after the contest. "It certainy wasn't artistic at times, but their length makes it really difficult. We did a really good job keeping them out of transition. We have some things to work on and improve on, but it is certainly better to teach from a win."
Four quick points by Muscala followed by a Johnson 3-pointer sent Bucknell out to a 7-0 lead. George Mason's first points of the night came on a Vertrail Vaughns jumper 5:06 in. The Bison led by as many as nine in a fast-paced opening half, that coming after another Johnson trifecta with 6:24 left. Treys by Wright and Allen helped get Mason back within four by halftime.
This was George Mason's first-ever appearance in Sojka Pavilion and its first in Lewisburg since 1998-99. Last season in Fairfax, Va., the Patriots won nearly the identical score, 61-57. The circumstances were just the opposite in that one, as Bucknell missed a potential-tying 3-pointer in the final seconds before George Mason clinched it at the line.
Things do not get much easier for Bucknell, as now it faces three games in three days in Niagara Falls as part of the 2K Sports Classic benefitting Wounded Warrior Project. The Bison will play traditional MAAC power Niagara on Friday, followed by New Mexico State, a 26-win NCAA Tournament team last year, on Saturday. Bucknell finishes the weekend against West Alabama on Sunday afternoon.
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