By Todd Hummel
The Daily Item
---- — LEWISBURG -- Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen searched for words that the look on his face already conveyed, the same for senior captains Mike Muscala and Joe Willman.
The three of them couldn't hide the disappointment and anger at another loss to Lehigh.
However, it just wasn't the loss, it was the way the Mountain Hawks came into Sojka Pavilion and beat a Bucknell team that knows its dreams of a Patriot League title and NCAA Tournament berth most likely hinge on beating Lehigh.
"I'm really disappointed in the toughness. To have (Lehigh) come out on your court and spot them a 15-point lead on defensive blunder after defensive blunder is just a disgrace. We fought so hard to come back and to give up two key offensive rebounds late to cost us the game," Paulsen said.
"This one hurts."
Lehigh's backcourt, even without injured NBA-prospect C.J. McCollum, proved to be too much for the Bison as B.J. Bailey and Mackey McKnight combined for 35 points and the Mountain Hawks used a late rally to beat Bucknell for a third consecutive time, this time 65-62 in front of a national television audience on CBS Sports Network.
Bucknell (16-4 overall, 3-1 Patriot League) won its first three league games by double digits, but struggled at the beginning of all three contests. That came back to haunt the Bison against Lehigh as Bucknell got off to a woeful start, falling behind by 15 points with six minutes left in the first half.
"It's like a broken record and at some point it's got to come down on the internal leadership of the team and if guys aren't ready and focused, they have to be willing to grab them by the throat and tell them to get off the court," Paulsen said. "Some very, very good players could have their careers come to end in disappointment if they don't do what ever is necessary to help this team."
"It's on me as a captain to get the guys going," Muscala added. "We're good players and I think we're confident, but I think we aren't focused and ready defensively (early in games)."
While Bucknell was shooting just 4-of-17 to start the game, Lehigh (14-4, 4-0) got hot from behind the arc and it continued throughout the game. The Mountain Hawks built their early lead, shooting 6-of-10 behind the arc and finished the game 10-of-18 on 3's. Lehigh shot just 35.6 percent overall in the game, but 55.6 percent on treys.
Bucknell finally got untracked when Bryson Johnson converted a four-point play with 5:41 left in the first half. That started the Bison on a 16-2 half-ending run that saw them get back within 29-28 at the break when Willman hit a jumper at the buzzer.
The Bison would build a seven-point lead in the second half, but Muscala left the game with cramps, portending a Mountain Hawks' run. But some stellar play by freshman Dom Hoffman kept Bucknell in front. Hoffman scored 10 points, six spelling Muscala in the second half. It was by far the freshman's career high, topping the four he had scored three previous times.
Bucknell still led by five at 56-51 when Hoffman converted a foul shot with 6:34 left, but Lehigh's previous success against the Bison allowed the Mountain Hawks to have some steely nerves in the face of a raucous Sojka crowd.
"Everybody knows basketball can be a game of runs. We knew when we were up 15, Bucknell was going to come back," Bailey said. "I don't remember being down seven, you can't really pay attention to the score. You just have to keep doing what you are doing and getting (defensive) stops and the score will work itself out at the end."
Lehigh's defense held the Bison to just one field goal over the final five minutes of the game. McKnight and Bailey combined for eight points in that span. Bailey hit a 3-pointer and found Justin Goldsborough for a layup to tie the game with 5:49 left. After a Muscala jumper briefly gave Bucknell the lead, McKnight's 3-pointer with 4:41 left in the game gave the Mountain Hawks the lead for good.
Thanks to some missed foul shots, Bucknell did have a good shot to send the game into overtime. Trailing by three with four seconds left, Cameron Ayers got a good look from about 25-feet, but his shot went off the front rim.
Bailey had 18 points, including 4-of-4 from behind the arc, to lead Lehigh, while McKnight finished with 17 points and eight rebounds from his point guard spot.
Muscala finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and six blocked shots, while Willman had 15 points. Ayers finished with nine points, eight assists and six boards.