Big night for small town team

They saluted the Bucknell Bison Monday night in Lewisburg.

It was a classic small town celebration, a ride through downtown on fire engines, then back to the gym for a few words by the local politicians.

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A lot of new faces, most lining up to have their pictures taken.

Not all were bandwagon jumpers. State Rep. Russ Fairchild always catches three or four games a year. Many of the administration and faculty on hand were regulars.

Before they left for Oklahoma, they joked about being unknown. In a small town like Lewisburg, they might get the occasional autograph request from local kids they know from camp. But they are hardly celebrities.

In Lewisburg, basketball players have always been known as Bucknell kids who happen to play basketball. To most in town, they could as well be the debate club or the Bison Chips (do they still have the Bison Chips? Or have I shown my age and lack of hipness with a reference from the Woollum era?).

The point is, they were never celebrities at home until they became celebrities nationwide.

It would be tempting to joke about the elected official who asked for directions to the rest room. But you know what? It was great. It was great for Bucknell. It was great for the league.

Welcome aboard the wagon, I say. It's not like we don't have room.

Kevin Bettencourt couldn't have been happier if he were in a duckie on the Charles. These kids -- teenagers most of 'em -- had a night they will never forget.


Not if they win an NBA ring.

Not being made CEO, not winning a Pulitzer Prize, will ever dwarf the feeling they had, riding atop those firetrucks, waving to the couple thousand fans that lined the dozen or so orange-and-blue balloon lined blocks from the high school, through the heart of town, to Sojka.

The smiles were wider than a Chris McNaughton three-pointer as they were saluted in Sojka.

Back in the tunnel from their locker room, waiting to come into the arena, they could hear the crowd react as they showed the final two minutes of Bucknell's win over Kansas on the video screen. They heard the outburst when McNaughton's jump hook banked off the glass for the lead. They heard an even louder road when Wayne Siminen's shot clanked and as Donald Brown puffed his jersey.

It was a standing ovation when they took the floor. The first of many, none of which actually need Doug Birdsong's coaching.

Did we mention borough council was all there?

"These young men captured the hearts of Oklahoma City and the nation with their poise and their composure," said the Vice President of Student Affairs, Charlie Pollock, a voice that was heard in the OKC crowd all weekend from his perch about a half dozen rows up.

The Mayor gave Pat Flannery a certificate of excellence in coaching. Just when it seemed like the Bison gave the town a name and all they got was this cheesy certificate, the Mayor followed her own shot and scored big with the crowd by proclaiming Tuesday as Bison Men's Basketball Day in Lewisburg.

The student government president said he'd never been prouder to wear his orange and blue in his hometown. Couldn't find him after to ask how many games he saw this season.

The school president characterized the them as "Engineers, scientists and writers who happen to excel at sports."

John Hardt joked that if you'd told him five years ago when he hit town that Bucknell would beat a team like Kansas he'd "have found that hard to believe."

A hoarse Pat Flannery saluted the school's pep band, all 8 or 9 of which were infamous no-shows during the tournament. They were supplemented by the Bison's third rented band of the weekend (Lewisburg H.S.). It didn't matter; All was forgiven.

"Sorry about my voice," the hoarse Flannery said. "It had nothing to do with the officiating."

All the players got a chance at the microphone. The mystery of the Fear the Bison song was revealed (a Holland Mack production). Chris Niesz, team's only senior said, "This is one of the few times I wish I were a freshman."

The bookstore had a stand, doing boffo business in Bison memorabilia, including fresh from the printers tees emblazoned with "Bucknell has danced the Big Dance" on the front and "Just ask Kansas" on the back.

Obviously with a team this hot, you don't even need clever slogans to sell shirts.

Business has been better than homecoming weekend, even better than Parents Weekend, said the bookstore lady.

"Everybody is so proud of the team. It's been great."

Even fans from the state of Kansas have been ordering schwag from the bookstore's Web site (which they would be wise to advertise here, eh?).

Before the tournament, you'd probably been hard pressed to find hoops specific gear in the bookstore. Now there's a Patriot League championship shirt, a brackets shirt and the dance shirt we just mentioned, with more on the way.

The media has been on the bandwagon, too. Local TV from Wilkes-Barre and Harrisburg were tripping over each other and the local papers who missed the boat because they were, frankly, too damned cheap to go to Oklahoma or too damned dumb to see it coming.

The guys at the tournament in OKC were already liking the Bucknell story even before the Kansas win. That put it over the top. It didn't hurt that the kids from BU were good quotes.

As Pollock told the crowd in Sojka, "These young men captured the hearts of Oklahoma City and the nation with their wit, their poise and their composure."

Michael Smiley also had a moment to remember Wednesday night.

Smiley, a little used senior guard scored the final bucket of Holy Cross' fine season, a layup at the end of the Crusaders 68-60 second round NIT loss at Saint Joseph's.

It doesn't mean as much to him now. But that is the kind of memory that ages well.

By the time he is telling his grandkids he played in the NIT and shows them his name in the box score, that bucket, along with the memories of an outstanding season, will mean a lot to Smiley.

Ditto for the rest of the Holy Cross team, which in any other season would have been the shining stars of the conference.

Don't let anybody tell you those Holy Cross close losses in recent tournaments didn't help pave the way for Bucknell's achievement. Did you notice how quickly those TV graphics went from the 0-13 league to the league that broke through after three near misses.

Let nobody forget that before Bucknell scored the first league win in the NCAA Tournament, Holy Cross picked up the first ever Patriot postseason victory.

Before you go anointing Bucknell a dynasty, remember Holy Cross has Simmons, Hamilton, Thomas and Doherty back and the only center in the league with the potential to challenge Chris McNaughton in freshman Tim Clifford (If I were their coaches, they'd be off to Pete Newell's camp this summer).

There is a lot of other young talent in the league, too. Lafayette and Navy will both be better. Lehigh probably will, too. Colgate needs a big man, but will be no slouch. AU will still have Ingram and the big Lithuanian transfer from South Carolina, whose impact remains to be seen. Army can't be any worse.

So the league will get tougher. The competition fiercer. The rivalries more pitched. The caliber of play better. The media attention will grow. So too will the fan base.

Who knows, even Holy Cross fans might learn to like the Patriot League.

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