Bucknell win sends message

Charles Lee is no Bobby Thompson.

Lee's shot was not heard 'round the world.

But rest assured, Lee's 19-foot with less than a second to go last night in Lewisburg has been heard 'round the Patriot League.

Lee's bucket, off a set piece on an inbounds that sent Kevin Bettencourt to the opposite corner as a decoy while Lee ran off a screen in front of the Bucknell bench, gave Bucknell a very impressive 76-74 win (box score) over a quality Niagara team.

It sent a message to the rest of the league. In no uncertain terms it put the other seven teams on notice. The skeptics who thought the Bison (7-5) were overrated when the league's coaches picked them to win the title in a preseason poll, are now thinking twice about having written them off at the beginning of the month.

It is understandable how it might have looked to those casual observers from afar. When the Bison lost two of three at the end of Nov., then started Dec. with a loss at Penn, it was easy to wonder if American, or maybe Holy Cross, might be more deserving of the favorite's role.

Neither of those teams has done anything to diminish their early season luster. But after Lee's shot gave Bucknell a win over a Niagara (6-4) team that beat American (by seven, at home, very early in the season), and a four-game win streak to boot, those who chose to dismiss the Bison will be forced to reconsider.

You don't need to take our word for it. Just ask Niagara coach Joe Mihalich. "We played American U," said Mihalich unsolicited. "We think (Bucknell) is the best team in the Patriot League."

Mihalich did not elaborate. We can only speculate why he thinks so highly of Bucknell. Based on what Mihalich saw last night, we'd guess it is because of the way Bucknell played both ends of the court. There are teams in the Patriot League that will outscore you and teams that will honker down in tough half court defense to beat you. Bucknell showed it can do both.

You would not know it by the score- in the mid 70s is not what you usually think of as Pat Flannery's preferred pace. Keep in mind, Niagara came in leading the nation in scoring, averaging 90 points per game.

It might not be obvious from the box score-- Niagara shot 48 percent from the field-- but Bucknell's defense, ranked No. 14 in the country, did a fantastic job. They didn't shut down Niagara, but they did control the tempo of the game.

"We felt coming in-- it was all over our report-- that we couldn't play the way they wanted to. We had to play the way we wanted to," said Flannery. "We certainly didn't want to get in a shootout with them."

This Niagara team is loaded with offensive weapons. They are an athletic bunch that likes to get up and down the floor like the Bucknell teams of the Charlie Woollum era. Yet my notes don't show a single uncontested layup or anything I would classify as a fast break bucket. Bucknell forced Niagara to play halfcourt offense on almost every possession.

To their credit, the Eagles handled the chore admirably. They shot the lights out, especially in the first half, when they shot 50 percent from the field, including 5 treys. Some of those shots came from good ball movement, finding the open man, often Alvin Cruz, who led Niagara with 21 points, who was nearly automatic in the first half (5-for-7, 3-for-4 on 3-pointers).

Niagara scored, but not quickly, and they had to work for every point.

"Halfcourt, we really wore them down a lot," said Bucknell coach Pat Flannery.

At the other end, Bucknell ran its patient half court offense precisely, The Bison methodically worked through their patterns, cutting and screening until they found Chris McNaughton inside or an open shooter on the perimieter when the Niagara defenders were slowed by a pick or dropped off to help on McNaughton.

"Everything we did was in a halfcourt set," said Flannery, "with picks and screens and rolls."

Remind me again, where did I read a preview that said:
Tempo will be key. Bucknell will look to control the pace by running patient halfcourt sets and honkering down on defense, mixing in enough matchup zone to cause Niagara some confusion. If Bucknell can shoot the ball well, it will also help the defense since Niagara can't run on made shots.
McNaughton, who has started to come on strong of late, was almost unstoppable. Just ask Niagara's best player, Juan Mendez, who scored 18 points in 23 minutes, but could play no longer because he fouled out trying to guard McNaughton. McNaughton finished with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting from the field.

Mendez, the 6-8 Canadian import who is second to Calvin Murphy on Niagara's all-time scoring list, was a tough matchup for Bucknell with his ability to step out and shoot the three. Of Mendez's 18 points, 9 came on 3-pointers. Mendez was less effective down low, in part because Bucknell double- and triple-teamed him whenever he got the ball within 10 feet of the basket.

On paper, with Mendez out, it is a very different Niagara team.

"To not have your All-American on the floor, it hurts you," said Mihalich.

"Nobody feels bad when Chris McNaughton is in foul trouble, so I don't feel real bad that Mendez was in foul trouble," said Bucknell coach Pat Flannery.

That All-American stuff seems a stretch. Maybe Mihalick meant "All-Canadian.". Mendez only needs 71 points to become the all-time leading Canadian scorer in Division 1.

Regardless, he was easily, as Cruz pointed out, Niagara's best player. His inability to handle McNaughton on the defensive end gave Bucknell the edge in the best player vs. best player matchup.

To their credit, Niagara actually built a 7-point lead with Mendez on the bench after picking up his fourth personal. The lead was still six when Melendez left for good with 6:05 to play, less than two minutes after he returned to the floor. As quickly as he hit back-to-back buskets, the first a trey, to give Niagara a 69-63 lead, Mendez foolishly came from the weak side to try to contest a McNaughton dunk after he'd beaten his defender with a nice drop step from the right side of the key.

Bettencourt also scored 21 for the Bison. With Bettencourt's stroke and range, it is easy to think of him as a "shooter" (as opposed to a "scorer"). Against Niagara, Bettencourt shot his threes (3-for-5), but where he did his real damage was in the paint, fearlessly challenging bigger men on his way to the hole. Bettencourt's penetration earned him 8 trips to the foul line. He made all 8 shots. He also dished off 7 assists (0 turnovers).

I probably should have mentioned sooner that this was a fantastic ballgame. Often games are lost more than they are won. Not this one. Niagara played superb basketball. On the road, against a team that managed to slow its chuck-and-duck, and with its best player limited to 23 minutes of action, most teams might have lost by a wide margin. Yet the Purple Eagles came within James Mathis' Christian Laetner-esque catch-and-turn prayer from the top of the arc that drew iron, but bounced away, at the buzzer of picking up a win.

Aside from 17 turnovers and Mendez's bad judgment in picking up his fifth foul (or Mihalick's bad judgment leaving Mendez on the floor after he picked up his second personal with 2:37 to play in the first half. He picked up his third personal less than 40 seconds later), there was little to find fault with about Niagara.

Which is what makes the win so impressive. Bucknell did not beat Niagara on an off night. Niagara played very well. Bucknell played a little better.

"I'm anxious to get a tape of it and sit down and watch it," said Flannery. "It was a great college basketball game . . . It was a great win."

NOTE: When we posted this last night, we promised more links this morning. Not sure why, but for some reason Tom Housenick's story from the Daily Item didn't make their Web site this morning. Chris Brady's story from the Standard-Journal should be on their site when they update later today.

Elsewhere: Lafayette 73, Moravian 56 (box score) -- Corky Blake did a nice job in his story in the Express-Times of finding an interesting angle to write about an otherwise not-very-interesting game:
With three Betleys on the court at the same time and the son of Lafayette's greatest scorer wearing a Moravian uniform, the game took on the feel of a family affair.
Also, here is an interesting line from Andre Williams' story in the Morning Call:
After finally getting into gear, Lafayette demonstrated much of the same offensive punch that had helped it score a season-high 95 points in a 95-89 win over Cal-State Northridge on Dec. 13 in Easton.
Well, maybe that is true. But how on earth would the Morning Call know? You might recall that after that Lafayette win over CSN, we went looking for a Morning Call story to link to.

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