By Bob Socci
Inside the final half minute of Wednesday’s Patriot League basketball championship, a pair of missed free throws by Lehigh’s Mackey McKnight accorded Bucknell a 12th opportunity to take its first lead of the evening. And perhaps, the only lead it would need to return to the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.
But the Bison were out of timeouts, after spending their final two in the minuscule span of four seconds; during which guard Bryson Johnson bracketed a Mountain Hawk foul with his back-to-back three-pointers. His remarkable sequence reduced a 78-71 differential to the narrowest of margins.
Twice in a matchup of the conference’s top two seeds, who entered the evening with a combined 49 wins, the game had been tied. First, at 15-all. Next, after Lehigh led by as many as 11 late in the first half, when the score was 50-50.
With a predominantly orange-clad crowd of 4,267 crammed inside the Sojka Pavilion poised to spill onto Bucknell’s home court, possession and the latest chance to forge in front belonged to Bison sophomore Cameron Ayers. As a Second-Team All-Patriot League guard, Ayers was part of the talented supporting casts surrounding the conference’s two premier players.
Bucknell’s Mike Muscala had doubled as the league’s Player of the Year and its tournament MVP in 2011. Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum, who in 2010 became the first freshman to win the Patriot’s Player-of-the-Year award, had earned the honor again in 2012. Between them, Muscala and McCollum were bound for a 59-point night.
With the shot clock dark and no other options presenting themselves, as time slipped away, Ayers drove along the baseline from right-to-left. Elevating under the basket, he attempted a reverse layup, only to have his shot blocked with eight seconds to go by the Hawks’ Gabe Knutson. Despite playing with four fouls, Knutson made the defensive play to preserve the lead.
Four free throws later, two by McCollum and the final pair by senior Jordan Hamilton, Lehigh celebrated an 82-77 victory (its school-record 26th overall) and a second trip to the NCAA Tournament in three years. McCollum, who finished with 29 points, five assists, three steals and two blocks, was deemed the tourney’s most valuable player.
Meanwhile, Knutson was its most invaluable. A second-team all-conference pick, he started by making his first six shots. Then, following misses on five of his next seven tries, Knutson drilled a three-pointer for a 67-62 lead, just past the five-minute mark. Overall, he scored a season-high 23 points and grabbed a team-leading seven rebounds. Five of those boards were offensive, helping the Hawks outscore the Bison, 10-4, on second-chance points.
As a kid, Knutson lived for three years in Australia, where his father worked on the financial side of John Deere. By the time they returned to the United States, eventually to settle in Iowa, Knutson was a seventh-grader. He also was probably the most well-informed middle-schooler in middle America about the sports of water polo, rugby and Australian Rules Football.
March Madness, on the other hand, was a mystery. On Wednesday morning, shortly before Lehigh’s shoot-around, Knutson recounted the time he found his dad filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket. What was he doing, Gabe wondered? Of course, he’s since found out. Two years ago, Knutson was a freshman when the 16th-seeded Mountain Hawks hung with Kansas, before the Jayhawks pulled away midway through the second half of a 90-74 victory. Next week Knutson gets to rediscover the true meaning of the madness. Admittedly short on his knowledge of basketball history, Knutson sure has been living a lot of it lately.
Bucknell, denied a dozen times in its bid to overtake Lehigh, takes its 24 wins into the NIT, guaranteed a postseason berth by virtue of its regular-season title. In 2005, the last time the Patriot League had two teams play beyond its tournament, the Bison shocked Kansas in the NCAA and Holy Cross eliminated Notre Dame from the NIT. With McCollum and Muscala carrying the Patriot League banner, while leading their respective schools to their respective tourneys, a similar showing is a very real possibility.
But regardless of what they do and where they go from here, theirs was quite a send-off. Even if only one left the Sojka smiling on Wednesday, the performance of both are worth celebrating.
Following is a link to our recap for www.cbssports.com, after Vince Curran and I enjoyed the privilege of calling Lehigh’s 82-77 win for the CBS Sports Network: