For The Daily Item
Cameron Ayers’ jump shot, like many who played in Bucknell’s much-anticipated matchup with host Lehigh, was off.
So the junior guard went to Plan B with the shot clocking winding down in a one-possession game in the final minute.
Ayers drove into the lane and threw up a right-handed scoop shot that kissed off the glass and in.
It allowed Bucknell to finally put away Lehigh and take over first place in the Patriot League with a 61-55 victory at Stabler Arena.
Bucknell (22-5 overall, 9-2 PL) currently has a one-game lead and the tie-breaker edge over defending champion Lehigh (18-7, 8-3) for the top spot with three games left in the regular season.
“I wasn’t hitting my outside shots and I knew I was a little quicker than (Lehigh’s Holden) Greiner, so I was just trying to get to the rim,” Ayers recalled. “I was lucky that scoop shot went in.”
“We don’t know how he made that shot,” Lehigh’s Mackey McKnight added.
Lehigh’s tandem of McKnight and Greiner kept the Mountain Hawks within striking distance. Each scored 17 points. They were to take advantage of speed and size matchups on drives and post-ups in the paint.
Bucknell still led by 11 with 8 minutes, 43 seconds left after Bryson Johnson and Ben Brackney combined for five 3-pointers in a span of 3:57.
But Greiner scored seven in a row to get Lehigh within 52-48.
It was a game of attrition the rest of the way, leading up to Ayers’ wild shot just out of the reach of Greiner’s extended left hand with the shot clock expiring.
Lehigh missed two 3-pointers in the final seconds and Ayers added a free throw for the final point.
“At Bucknell, they delivered a few more body blows and made 10 three-pointers,” Bison coach Dave Paulsen said. “And, tonight, we delivered a few more body blows.”
Lehigh missed nine of 15 free throws and 14 of 15 from 3-point range to put itself in a hole for most of the game.
Bucknell made 10 of its first 11 freebies, but missed four in a row late, including two front ends of 1-and-1s, to make it interesting.
The Bison bench was a big reason for the much-needed win after Saturday’s loss at Lafayette.
Brian Fitzpatrick, who played a total of seven minutes the previous three games, had to play extended minutes in the first half because Mike Muscala picked up his second foul at the 12:35 mark.
The senior backup responded with six points, a career-high 10 rebounds and one blocked shot in 13 minutes.
“Terrific performances off the bench,” Paulsen said. “Fitzpatrick kept us in the game in the first half.”
Brackney and freshman Ryan Frazier made strong contributions in the second half and Steve Kaspar equaled his career high with seven assists.
Lehigh, meanwhile, got just seven rebounds, four points, one block and one steal from its bench.
Bucknell trailed by only one at half despite getting just seven minutes out of Muscala. That deficit was courtesy of a McKnight fastbreak basket with one second left after a Bison turnover. The junior point guard had 10 of his points before intermission as the Mountain Hawks finished on a 13-4 run.
Bucknell scored the game’s first seven points, but failed to take advantage of Lehigh’s poor start. The Mountain Hawks missed their first six shots and started just 3-for-16 from the field. But the Bison weren’t much better, starting 5-for-16.
“That’s two games in a row that we didn’t come out ready to play,” McKnight said.
GAME NOTES: A season-high attendance of 3,774 came to Stabler. The road team has won the last five meetings. ... Johnson led all scorers with 19 points. Muscala finished with 12 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots. ... B.J. Bailey returned from a two-game absence to get three points and three rebounds in 35 minutes for the Mountain Hawks. But it was clear his left ankle was less than 100 percent. ... Johnson and Joe Willman fought through illness for the second game in a row. Willman had just six points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes. ... Lehigh came into the game second in the league in FT percentage at better than 75 percent. ... Lehigh had a 38-20 advantage in points in the paint. ... Bucknell owned a 42-35 rebounding advantage.