By: Matthew Doherty
BOSTON — With first place in the Patriot League up for grabs, the Bucknell Bison proved they are still the top dog in the conference.
The reigning champs used their experience and offensive prowess to throttle BU, 91-79, on Sunday afternoon at Case Gym to gain an inside track to the regular season title. The Bison (15-8, 9-1 Patriot League) now lead the Terriers (11-10, 7-3 Patriot League) by two games in the conference standings with just eight contests remaining.
BU defeated Bucknell in Sojka Pavilion back in early January, and a Terrier win Sunday would have flipped the script to vault Joe Jones’ and co. into prime position to capture their first regular season crown since 2014. But for the third year in a row, the Patriot League’s coveted bid to the NCAA tournament will most likely go through Lewisburg, Penn.
“First off, I don’t believe in revenge games,” said Bison Coach Nathan Davis. “But clearly this was the most important game of the year. I don’t think anyone who was there or anyone in our locker room thought we played our best game. I think since [our last matchup] our guys have been locked in.”
The three-headed monstrous senior class of Stephen Brown, Zach Thomas and Nana Foulland were certainly locked in on Sunday against the youthful Terriers.
The trio combined for 54 points, and completely dominated the pace of the game as the Bison won their eighth straight game since BU upset them on their own court.
Bucknell returned all five starters from a team that pushed fourth-seeded West Virginia to the brink of elimination last March in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. On Sunday, the four upperclassmen in the Bison starting five overmatched the four underclassmen in the Terriers’ lineup.
“Obviously they have experience on their side,” Jones said. “They’re a good team. We’re not a team that even thinks about that though. Experience is on their side but that has nothing to do with effort. I thought we hung our heads today.”
The odds were already stacked against BU before the ball was even tipped. Leading scorer and fifth-year senior Cedric Hankerson sat out with a hamstring injury for the third consecutive game.
Although the Terriers netted 79 points, there were scoring droughts during the game where Hankerson’s microwave shooting would have provided a much-needed jolt.
For example, when Bucknell ended the first-half on a 27-13 run to take a strangle hold on the game and silence the season-high 900 fans at the Roof.
“Look, he’s a great player,” Jones said about Hankerson. “He’s a first-team league player. Anytime you lose a guy like that it’s going to impact, but again I’ve never ever sat and thought about, well what if we had Cedric. Our best player has been out and we’re in second place. I don’t know how many teams would be able to do that.”
Sophomore forward Tyler Scanlon stepped up in Hankerson’s absence in the opening minutes with 10 early points. Senior Will Goff complemented Scanlon with an aggressive drive to the cup to give BU a 16-10 lead.
But, from that point on it was all Bucknell. Brown scored 12 points during an 18-3 Bison run late in the first half. In the second half, the eastern Pennsylvanian team responded to every bucket the Terriers made.
When sophomore forward Max Mahoney scored on one end, reigning Patriot League Player of the Year Nana Foulland had an answer on the other. When freshman Walter Whyte scored one of his 11 points in the second half on one end, this season’s favorite for Patriot League Player of the Year, Zach Thomas, scored. Davis’s squad led by as many as 23 in the latter stages of the game.
Bucknell shot 61 percent from the field in the second frame and 57 percent for the game. Ten Bison were on the scoring sheet.
“We just had to put more energy into our defense,” Jones said. “We struggled in transition whether we were zone or man. We did a really bad job of getting ourselves back. They were scoring at the rim. We didn’t have enough resistance.”
Sunday’s game was a big test to see if the Terriers were ready to leapfrog Bucknell into the upper echelon of the Patriot League.
Jones’ underclassmen group of Mahoney, Scanlon, Whyte, Javante McCoy, and even Sukhmail Mathon and Andrew Petcash showed why they should be at the top of the conference for years to come. But it is clear that Bucknell is still the team to beat for now.