Because it is played on the home floor of the higher-seeded team, the atmosphere surrounding the Patriot League championship game always makes it an entertaining game. This season will be no different, as top-seeded Bucknell plays host to upstart sixth-seed Lafayette. Will it be the favorite or the Cinderella story?
Bucknell (24-8, 13-1) has lost only twice since November, falling at Boston College by four and to Army back in late January. The Bison rolled through conference play, although the tournament has not been without close calls. Bucknell avenged its lone loss to Army with an easy, 27-point victory. In the semifinals, though, the Bison needed clutch play down the stretch from Mike Muscala to hold off Lehigh.
The Bison have been doing it with defense this season, allowing 70 points just twice since late December. They force difficult shots in a half-court setting and don’t allow any second-chance opportunities. Muscala is the go-to-guy offensively, although he has been inconsistent down the stretch. Darryl Shazier is a playmaker at the point guard spot, while a variety of role players contribute. Freshman Cameron Ayers is coming on strong down the stretch.
Lafayette (13-18, 6-8) has been the surprise of the tournament. The Leopards lost four of their last five to end the regular season, stumbling to a sixth-place finish. They turned it around in the conference tournament, though, knocking off Holy Cross and No. 2 American on the road in back-to-back games. The semifinal game against the Eagles was a double-overtime classic that was decided by a Jim Mower 3-pointer in the waning seconds.
Jared Mintz is the leader for the Leopards, pacing the team in points and rebounds. He has stepped up his play late in the season, averaging 18.7 points and 7.3 rebounds in his last three games. Mower, the hero in the semifinals, is a 3-point marksman who can get hot in a hurry. Ryan Willen is averaging 15.0 points in his last four. Lafayette relies heavily on the 3-pointer at the offensive end, while the defense has been porous at times.
The match-up to watch in this one will be Muscala vs. Mintz down in the post. Both players are their team’s best scorer and rebounder, although Mintz is playing better down the stretch. Muscala is a tougher player on the boards and in the post, so it will be interesting to see if Mintz can bang with him. Defensively, Lafayette needs to keep Shazier from creating chances for himself and Bucknell’s numerous offensive options. The Bison need to guard the arc and not allow open looks for Lafayette.
Both teams needed clutch performances in the semifinals just to advance to the title game; are we in store for another classic? Lafayette might not have the defense to make that happen – the Leopards struggle at that end of the floor. Bucknell’s suffocating half-court defense will be a nightmare for Mintz and Willen and won’t allow Mower to get hot from deep. The Bison should advance.
Posted by Jeff Borzello
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