BOSTON – As the long season moves along, every team hopes to play their best basketball around the end of the season. In Bucknell’s case, that has meant going through a challenging transition to start. That transition seems more towards completion now, as the Bison have a season-best four-game winning streak going and appear to have plenty of upside.
This isn’t the Bison of a year ago, when they had three seniors key an experienced, very cohesive unit that carried the team to a Patriot League title. This team has needed many players to step into new roles, from Cameron Ayers needing to become the go-to guy after being a complementary player to three new starters needing to do more. The Bison knew this day would come and the transition would be a challenge, but until they went through it the extent was an unknown.
“The biggest thing we probably miss is just their talk,” Ayers said of the departed stars. “That’s why we struggled, I think, in the beginning of the year, our defensive intensity and talk. We’re starting to improve on that greatly, as you can see today what we’re capable of doing when those things are both intact.”
Bucknell certainly won Sunday’s game at Boston University with their defense, but that wasn’t all. They had more energy than the Terriers and were the tougher team all the way around. They held Boston University to 32 percent shooting on the day and out-rebounded them 46-27, the latter a reversal of what the Terriers did to American a few nights earlier.
The Bison also won with a big showing from the bench in the second half. Reserves accounted for 30 of their last 34 points as they took over after the Terriers built a nine-point lead a few minutes into the second half and looked like they might be ready to break the game open. Instead, Bucknell went on an 11-2 run to regain the lead, then appeared to use that as a psychological edge the rest of the way as they were significantly better than the Terriers in the final minutes.
The play of the reserves is a big part of why this team has a ways to go to reach its ceiling. Ayers and graduate student Brian Fitzpatrick, who had 12 rebounds on Sunday, are the only senior starters and only two others are seniors. The Bison always play a lot of players, and the big combination was Ayers alongside freshmen D.J. MacLeay and John Azzinaro, sophomore Ryan Frazier and junior Cory Starkey.
While Steven Kaspar has grown nicely this year as a starter at the point and also become a co-captain, he didn’t have his best game on Sunday. In stepped Azzinaro, a change-of-pace player for this team as he’s very quick. He scored nine points, including a three-pointer, and his future is clearly bright for this team, especially if he can shoot well. Azzinaro made plays that didn’t show up in the box score as well.
Frazier is known more for his defense, but he had several key drives including a pair that led to conventional three-point plays. He scored ten points on 4-6 shooting and gave the Terrier guards a hard time at the other end. When much-improved classmate Chris Hass takes a breather, Frazier comes in and slows down opposing guards.
MacLeay and Starkey each had seven rebounds, but mainly aided the rally with timely plays. Starkey was right there for loose balls and three offensive boards, while MacLeay hit a big three-pointer that gave the Bison the lead.
“That big three by D.J. (MacLeay) was huge,” said Ayers, who made for a light moment after that. “I was going to kill him, honestly, if he missed it (as laughter erupted), but that’s what he can do. They came in and we didn’t miss a beat, so that was huge for us.”
Ayers didn’t have his best game, but his 11 points led the Bison. The biggest thing he did was lead, something he’s had to do all year. It’s easy to think that comes naturally considering his father coached in college and the NBA, and his older brother played at Notre Dame, but he had older players to fall back on the last three years.
“He’s really stepped up in an amazing way verbally and just helping to focus our guys,” said head coach Dave Paulsen. “We played down the stretch with two freshmen a lot who earlier in the year looked like deer in the headlights.”
Paulsen said their loss at Holy Cross two weeks earlier was basically a gut-check time for this team. At that point, they were 5-7 in Patriot League play and had lost six of eight. They didn’t look good, and while they lost a few tough ones along the way the last two losses in that stretch had the biggest margins.
It’s fair to say they have responded well since then. At that time it would have been very hard to imagine them knocking off the league leaders on the road. They decided they were better than what they showed in Worcester, and now they are proving it.
“It just feels good that we’re making progress in terms of toughness and defensively and guys growing into their roles,” said Paulsen.
Bucknell can still get a home game in the Patriot League Tournament. They are tied with Army in fourth place, and Lehigh is two games back in sixth. Army is at home for their final two, but will play league-leading Boston University and a hot Lafayette team that has won four in a row. Bucknell gets a visit from Lehigh and has to go to American, so they don’t exactly have it easy.
But regardless of where they play their first game in the tournament, the Bison are clearly in a better place now. They got a win they would not have a few weeks earlier in Boston, and now have their longest winning streak of the season. The players have had plenty of time to grow into their new roles and prosper in them. All of that is bearing fruit now, and they are playing their best basketball at a good time.