The last time AU faced off against Bucknell, in early January in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, the game wasn’t much of a contest. The Bison cruised to a 72-54 victory, and all but two Eagles were held to single-digit scoring while four Bison starters posted double-figure scoring performances. Last night, however, AU played like a completely different team, beating Bucknell 69-55 in Bender Arena.
The Eagles persevered through a tough first half and fought their way into the lead in the second half, an accomplishment hardly seen this season prior to AU’s recent winning streak. With a little less than five minutes left in the game, AU propelled past the 49-49 tied score and vaulted into the lead for good with a pair of three-pointers, near perfect free throw shooting and smothering defence.
Despite AU’s win over Bucknell, the Eagles remain in seventh place in the Patriot League, and Bucknell still tops the league based on results from the other PL games.
AU head coach Mike Brennan said he remains focused on the future, despite the Eagles’ five-game winning streak in which they have defeated the top three teams in the Patriot League.
“Obviously [Bucknell is] the top team in the league, [but] it’s just one game,” Brennan said. “We just have to continue to improve and worry about Lehigh right now.”
During the the first half, the two teams fought back-and-forth with three lead changes and five ties. AU took the largest lead of the half, 19-13, after a 6-0 run with 7:30 remaining until halftime. Two minutes later the Bison stormed back, tying the game 21-21. A pair of lay-ups put the Eagle back in the lead 25-21.
Bucknell cut the deficit to two points with two minutes remaining in the half off a jumper by sophomore guard Stephen Brown. In the next minute of play neither team scored as a result of continuous missed shots and turnovers. With 34 seconds to play until the half, AU freshman guard Delante Jones fouled Brown, and the Bison sank both free throws, evening the score once again. In their final possession of the half, the Eagles took a 27-25 lead into halftime after freshman guard James Washington hit a jump shot.
The second half began much like the first half, with back-and-forth play and hard, contested baskets. The lead changed six times and remained tied nine times in the second 20 minutes. Bucknell continued to push the pace throughout the second half, sprinting in every offensive possession and pushing inside for easy layups. However, the Eagles remained methodical in their drawn out possessions and rampant passing before taking a shot.
After 35 minutes of play, the score was again tied at 49. The Eagles, instead of falling under pressure or fading like they had on occasion earlier in the season, found a higher gear. In the last five minutes of the game, AU scored 20 points while holding Bucknell to six. After a pair of three-pointers by Washington and AU junior guard Paris Maragkos, the Bison began to foul. The Eagles executed near perfect free throw shooting in the final moments of the game, and in the final seconds, senior guard Marko Vasic unleashed a thundering dunk to punctuate the victory.
Four Eagles finished the game in double digit scoring, led by standout Jones, who notched a game-high 18 points. Washington added 12 points while Maragkos scored 11 points in just 15 minutes of play.
“We knew we were going to improve. The freshmen came along, and we really need them,” Maragkos said. “The chemistry is way better, and we expected this time was going to come.”
Freshman guards Washington and Jones remained focused on addressing their concerning high turnover rate, only surrendering two each.
“They [freshmen] have played a lot of minutes, they’ve gotten a lot of experience,” Brennan said. “We knew they were going to be good, we liked them, we just had to go through some growing pains as freshman. So having all that experience is allowing them to be able to compete now and win games.”
After three games in eight days, the Eagles will yet again have a quick turnaround, traveling to face Lehigh on Saturday. Brennan said his game prep largely remains the same no matter the opponent or time between games.
“This week was tough. Just ‘cause we had the Holy Cross game on Monday, so it was like one day of prep [between games], so it was harder for Holy Cross because it was the first time we played them,” Brennan said. “This was the second time for Bucknell, so we kinda knew it, we were familiar. To be honest, our preparation is the same, concentrate on ourselves. Make sure each guy is getting better and the team is getting better.”