LEWISBURG, Pa. -- A 12-point lead had dwindled to three when anxious Bucknell fans pleaded for center Mike Muscala to get the ball.
Just like he has all season, the Bison's big man delivered to help get his team back into the NCAA tournament.
The 6-foot-11 Muscala scored six of his 20 points during a decisive second-half run and added 11 rebounds in a 64-56 win Wednesday night over Lafayette to win the Patriot League title and a second NCAA berth in three years.
"It's pretty hard to stop him when he shoots a fadeaway left and a jump hook," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. "He put us on his back there for a stretch of 3 or 4 minutes."
The backbreaker might have been the long, high-arcing jumper that bounced high off the rim after orange-clad Bison fans yelled for the conference player of the year to get the ball. Whether or not he was listening, guard Cameron Ayers obliged with a backhand pass into the post.
Seconds later, Muscala turned back to the crowd, flexed his muscles and let out a yell as he turned up court to play defense.
"I just try to be aggressive in the post," said Muscala, a piece of the freshly cut net attached to his new white league championship hat. "I'm just so thrilled right now ... I worked so hard for this."
Joe Willman had 14 points and eight boards to form a potent frontcourt duo with Muscala for the top-seeded Bison (28-5).
Just like two years ago, Bucknell beat Lafayette (19-15) on its home floor to advance.
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."
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.
"We're thrilled," Paulsen said with a hoarse voice. "I know personally, I'm numb."
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.
Muscala said the defeat a year ago to the Mountain Hawks on their own court had stung all season -- especially since it happened on their home floor in cozy Sojka Pavilion. The Bison used the Lehigh loss as motivation for this season, determined to get back to the NCAAs.
It's time for Bucknell to dream once again.
"Right before the game tonight, we said `We prepared for this game for a year," Muscala said. "I know personally, I speak for the rest of the guys: This is what we worked for all summer, all season long."
Bucknell 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.
Playing in their last game on their home floor, seniors 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.
"He can light it up at any point in time," said teammate Tony Johnson (11 points, six rebounds). "When you bring Joey off the bench, he's capable of getting 15, 20 points if he gets it going."
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.
Bryce Scott added 13 points for Lafayette, while Dan Trist added eight.
"I wish Bucknell the best," O'Hanlon said. "I hope they win a couple games" in the NCAAs.
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