BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Bryson Johnson scored a game-high 19 points, but it was Bucknell's bench that was the difference in a key 61-55 win at Lehigh on Monday night. The Bison avenged a loss to the Mountain Hawks earlier in the year and took over sole possession of first place in the Patriot League at 9-2 (22-5 overall).
Mike Muscala sat out most of the first half after picking up two quick fouls, but he still managed 12 points and nine rebounds. Bucknell never skipped a beat when fellow senior Brian Fitzpatrick replaced Muscala in the lineup. Fitzpatrick scored six big points and grabbed nine rebounds in the first half alone, and he finished the night with a career-high 10 boards.
Fitzpatrick wasn't the only reserve to play a critical role in the victory. Ben Brackney hit two of the team's five second-half 3-pointers and finished with six points and three rebounds. Steven Kaspar piloted the offense with a career-high-tying seven assists, while freshman guard Ryan Frazier was big at the other end of the floor defending all-star point guard Mackey McKnight. McKnight scored 17 points, but he had only two in the final 15 minutes.
"This was an incredibly gritty performance by our guys, especially in the second half," said head coach Dave Paulsen. "Ryan Frazier gave us our best chance to guard Mackey McKnight, who is a special player. We would not have won without the play of Frazier, Ben Brackney, Brian Fitzpatrick and Steven Kaspar."
Bucknell shot 51.9 percent in the second half after a 29.6 percent showing in the first. In the first meeting between the two teams, Lehigh went 10-for-17 from 3-point range while the Bison went just 2-for-12. Bucknell turned the tables in this one, canning 5 of 11 3-point attempts in the second half after a 1-for-6 start. Johnson hit three those treys and Brackney had the other two. Meanwhile, Lehigh, the fourth-best 3-point shooting team in the country coming in, went 1-for-15.
The road teams continued their dominance of this series. Lehigh had beaten the Bison three straight times, all at Sojka Pavilion, but now Bucknell has captured the last three at Stabler Arena. Bucknell is now 11-4 on the road this season. The 11 road wins are the most in the country and ties a school record.
Bucknell led for almost all of the first half before falling behind 24-23 at the break. There were seven lead changes and three ties in the first 7:20 of the second stanza, before Johnson snapped a 37-all deadlock with back-to-back 3-pointers. The first came on a Muscala offensive rebound and kick-out, and the second a deep pull-up in transition.
Muscala converted a 3-point play, and consecutive treys by Brackney and Johnson pushed the lead all the way up to 11 at 52-41. But with Willman out of the game in foul trouble, Greiner was effective in the low post against smaller defenders, and he scored seven straight Lehigh points to cut an 11-point deficit down to four at 52-48 with 5:59 left.
A free throw by Gabe Knutsen cut it to three, but then two straight drives to the basket resulted in points for Frazier and Johnson to make it 58-51 with 1:55 left.
Bucknell started the night 8-for-9 from the foul line, but then missed four in a row. Anthony D'Orazio scored in the lane to bring Lehigh within 58-55 with 48 seconds left. Bucknell broke the press and called timeout with 29.9 seconds to go. With the shot clock dwindling, Ayers drove on Greiner and somehow finished a circus shot at the rim while clashing to the floor with 12 seconds left. That gave the Bison a 60-55 lead. Lehigh missed at the other end, and Ayers made 1 of 2 at the line to finish it off.
Bucknell shot 40.7 percent on the night while Lehigh shot 40.0 percent. Both teams had trouble at the foul line, as Bucknell went 11-for-17 and Lehigh 6-for-15. The Bison finished with a 42-35 edge on the glass and had 15 assists and eight turnovers, only three of which came in the second half. Lehigh had only four turnovers all night.
Muscala, who earned Patriot League Player of the Week honors earlier in the day, added four blocks to his 12 points and nine rebounds, but he fell just shy of his 20th double-double of the season. His streak of six straight double-doubles came to an end, but he still leads the nation in that category.
Bucknell got out to a quick 7-0 lead following baseline jumpers by Muscala and Joe Willman, and a transition 3-pointer by Ayers. A pair of free throws by Muscala stretched it to 9-1 before Lehigh finally hit its first field goal 4:31 into the contest.
The Bison were dealt a tough blow when Muscala picked up his second foul with 12:35 left in the half, but Fitzpatrick came up big off the bench. He tallied six points and nine rebounds in 12 minutes. He swished a long jumper and tipped in his own miss to put Bucknell up 19-11 with 5:18 left in the half.
Lehigh closed the half on a 13-4 run, including the final six, to take a 24-23 halftime lead. The Mountain Hawks' first lead of the night came on McKnight's breakaway layup just before the buzzer after the Bison turned it over at the top of the key.
The Bison are off until Sunday, when Holy Cross visits Sojka Pavilion for a noon start.