LEWISBURG, Pa. – A national television audience and a boisterous, standing-room-only crowd watched the Bucknell’s men’s basketball team outlast Holy Cross 48-45 in a classic defensive struggle on Friday night. The win was Bucknell’s eighth in a row overall and 32nd in a row over a Patriot League opponent at home, and more importantly it tied the Bison with the Crusaders atop the conference standings with three regular-season games remaining.
Justin Castleberry led the way offensively with 10 points for the Bison, who are now 16-8 and 10-1 in the Patriot League. Holy Cross (19-7, 10-1), whose 12-game winning streak coming in was the second-longest active run in the nation behind only No. 1 Florida’s 15-game streak, received 15 points from Keith Simmons and 12 from Torey Thomas.
Both teams came in with defenses ranked in the top 17 nationally, and they lived up to their billing, as baskets were hard to come by all night. The Crusaders had it going early, making five of their first six attempts en route to a 12-2 lead just four minutes in, but the Bison held them to only nine more baskets the rest of the way, including only four in 18 attempts in the second half.
Bucknell whittled that early deficit to five by halftime, then took its first lead since 2-0 when Abe Badmus exploded out of the locker room with the team’s first seven points of the second half. Badmus, who was scoreless in the first half after also being held off the board in Holy Cross’ 65-60 win over Bucknell back on Jan. 12, first drove to the basket for a layup, then made a jumper just inside the arc and a 3-pointer from the deep right corner to put Bucknell ahead 29-28.
Five points from Colin Cunningham helped put the Crusaders back up by four at 35-31 with 12:22 left, but the Bison responded with eight straight points to take their first multi-possession lead of the night. Freshman Patrick Behan started the run with two straight finishes near the basket, then John Griffin, who would hit the biggest shot of the night a little later, snapped a 35-all tie with a short bank shot. At the 8:16 mark, Holy Cross starting power forward Alex Vander Baan drew his fifth foul on a scramble on the perimeter, and Darren Mastropaolo hit two free throws to make it 39-35.
Thomas canned an open 3-pointer to halt the run, then Thomas and Simmons made two free throws each to put Holy Cross back in front 42-39 with 5:32 to play. That is when Bucknell’s defense really stiffened. The Bison came up with six consecutive defensive stops, enough to allow the offense to surge ahead.
At the 5:03 mark Griffin grabbed an offensive rebound and stuck back a short baseline jumper to bring Bucknell within a point. On the ensuing possession, point guard Badmus got caught guarding 6’10”, 270-pound center Tim Clifford in the low post, but he did enough to force Clifford to miss a jump hook, and Chris McNaughton grabbed one of his game-high 10 rebounds.
Bucknell, which outrebounded Holy Cross 18-10 in the second half and 29-24 overall, grabbed two offensive rebounds on its next possession, the latter leading to two more Mastropaolo free throws. He again made them both to put the Bison ahead 43-42.
Bucknell missed its next three shots, but the Bison kept the lead by holding Holy Cross to one shot on each of its three ensuing possessions.
Then with 1:04 left, Badmus fired a diagonal pass through traffic to Griffin in the right corner, and with Simmons charging hard at him, Griffin ignored his 0-for-5 3-point shooting ledger to that point and drained a high-arcing 3-pointer that put the Bison ahead 46-42 and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
At the other end Thomas missed a jumper, and Badmus ran down the loose ball near the top of the key and was fouled with 38 seconds left. Badmus made both for a 48-42 lead, but Bucknell’s rock-solid free-throw shooting departed down the stretch, ultimately giving Holy Cross a final shot to tie.
McNaughton came up with a tough rebound in traffic after a Thomas missed 3-pointer with 20 seconds left, but McNaughton missed both from the line. Simmons then hit a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to make it 48-45 with 12 seconds left. After a timeout, Bucknell inbounded to Castleberry, who had been 2-for-2 in the game and 27-for-32 on the season from the line, but he also missed both.
The Crusaders then found Thomas, who had a good look at a 3-pointer from the deep left corner, but it rimmed out as time expired.
The win was Bucknell’s 16th in its last 20 games and made it 35-4 in Patriot League play since the start of the 2004-05 season. The eight-game winning streak is now tied for the third-longest in the Pat Flannery era (since 1994-95).
Castleberry scored all 10 of his points in the first half and finished as Bucknell’s only double-figure scorer. Badmus and Griffin both did all of their scoring in the second half, ending up with nine and seven points, respectively. McNaughton also had nine along with his 10 rebounds. It was his fourth double-figure rebounding effort of the season, all coming since Jan. 17. Mastropaolo was again an unsung hero with seven points, five rebounds and two assists, and Behan’s six points off the bench were a career high.
Bucknell went without the services of injured all-league candidate Donald Brown for the third straight game, but it has found a way to win them all in his absence.
In addition to his nine second-half points, Badmus also spent much of the final 20 minutes matched up with the bigger Simmons, who came in averaging a league-best 17.9 points per game. Simmons had only one second-half field goal, the 3-pointer with 12 seconds left.
Holy Cross shot 34.1 percent from the field overall after the 4-for-18 second-half showing. The Crusaders were 5-for-15 from 3-point range. Bucknell finished at 39.5 percent from the floor, 4-for-12 from the arc.
Bucknell has now won five games this season when trailing by 10 or more points at some point in the game, and it has won six times this season and 13 since the start of last year when trailing at the half.
The crowd of 4,209 was the fourth-largest in Sojka Pavilion history. The 93 combined points were the second-fewest in Sojka Pavilion history, behind only the 91 scored in Bucknell’s 53-38 win over Army on Jan. 24, 2003, and it was also the lowest-scoring game in series history. It was the first time the Bison won a game when scoring less than 50 points since a 44-43 victory over Lafayette on Feb. 19, 1986.
Bucknell’s three remaining Patriot League games are against Lafayette at home and Lehigh and Army on the road. Holy Cross plays at Navy and Lehigh, and home against Colgate. Both teams break from conference play for BracketBusters games on Feb. 17, Bucknell at home against Towson and the Crusaders at Hofstra.
Bucknell’s next appearance will be at Sojka Pavilion on Wednesday against a Lafayette team that gave the Bison fits in Easton last month. Bucknell rallied for a 67-61 victory at the Kirby Center in the first of what is now eight straight wins.