The road back to the top of the Patriot League is complete for the Bison men’s basketball team. This gritty squad, led by arguably the most decorated senior class in program history, is poised to make some serious noise as they head back to the NCAA Men’s Division One Basketball Championship tournament as the 11 seed in the East Region. The Orange and Blue defeated a tough Lafayette team 64-56 in the Patriot League Championship on March 13 after defeating a game Army squad in the league semifinals 78-70, on March 9. The Bison head to the tournament with a 28-5 overall record, and set the single-season record for most wins by a Patriot League team. This is the second tournament appearance for the Bison in three years and the sixth in program history.
The Bison used tough defense, especially from guards Steven Kaspar ’15 and Ryan Frazier ’16, and a tremendous second-half stretch run by Mike Muscala ’13 to get past the two-seeded Leopards. In front of a raucous crowd at Sojka Pavilion, Muscala showed why he was the Patriot League Player of the Year, posting 20 points and 11 rebounds for a nation-leading 22nd double-double of the season. Frontcourt teammate Joe Willman ’13 provided a great effort as well, posting 14 points and eight rebounds in the victory.
In the first half, the defense stifled a Lafayette offense that came in to the contest red hot, limiting them to just 18 points on 29.2 percent shooting en route to a 26-18 halftime advantage. Ben Brackney ’14 came off the bench and nailed two crucial first-half threes to get the Orange and Blue offense going in the opening frame. The tandem of Kaspar and Frazier limited Lafayette point guard Tony Johnson, who came in leading the Patriot League in field goal percentage, and held him to 11 points for the game on just 4-13 shooting.
The Bison came out strong to start the second half, pushing their lead to 12 points early on. However, the Leopards went on a 9-0 run led by Joey Ptasinski to cut the home team’s lead to 30-27. Frazier then came up with a game-changing series of plays. On the team’s following possession, Frazier made a driving layup as the shot-clock was winding down, and then broke up Lafayette’s inbound pass and found Cameron Ayers ’14, who finished with a hard-earned nine points, for the layup to push the lead back to seven.
Lafayette refused to go away though, going on a 6-1 run to cut the Bison lead down to 41-38 with 7:17 left. Then Muscala, the program’s all-time leading scorer and only player to surpass the 2,000 point mark, took over. First, he hit a hook shot on right baseline, and then came back on the team’s next possession and nailed another hook shot from the left baseline. Later, Muscala nailed a jumper that bounced off the rim several times before finally going in as part of a pivotal 12-0 run that expanded Bison lead to 55-40 with 2:54 left. A flurry of Lafayette three’s kept the game interesting, but a pair of Brackney free-throws sealed the victory, and Muscala’s 11th rebound of the game with eight seconds left started the celebration.
Muscala, who was just as excellent in the postseason as he was in the regular season, was named tournament MVP, and was joined by Willman and Ayers on the All-Tournament team. Ayers talked about how the team came together to bring home another Patriot League Championship.
“The most impressive aspect was how it was a total team effort. Every guy played a huge role in the win over Lafayette and it just shows how hard we have been working together throughout the whole year,” Ayers said.
The Orange and Blue survived an upset bid by the pesky Army Black Knights in the league semifinals. The Bison were paced by Muscala, who finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds, and Ayers scored 19 points, including 17 in a tense second half.
The Orange and Blue came out strong and took a 36-31 lead into halftime. The Bison lead grew to seven at 51-44 after an Ayers jumper. Army refused to give in and eventually took a 61-59 lead after Patriot League Rookie of the Year Kyle Wilson nailed a layup after being fouled.
The veteran, tough Bison team responded. Bryson Johnson ’13, who throughout his career has had a knack for providing threes when needed most, drained a three on the Bison’s next possession to retake the lead at 62-61, and ignited a 10-1 run. This proved to be the difference as the Bison advanced to their third-straight league championship game.
Ayers was brilliant down the stretch, and during one stretch scored 10 of the team’s 13 points. He explains what the keys to his success were against the Black Knights in the second half.
“I think I was able to succeed during the second half because I came in from halftime with an aggressive mindset and I tried to play to my strengths by getting to the midrange jumper,” Ayers said. “My teammates did a great job finding me and encouraging to keep attacking.”
In the final 3:30, Muscala hit five of six free throws to help seal the victory, and scored 11 points and 11 rebounds in the second half. Brackney again was huge off the bench, grabbing five boards and mostly filling in for Willman, who was plagued by foul trouble for large portions of the game but still posted eight points and five rebounds in 25 minutes of action.