Bison hold off HC charge, claim title

(Originally posted: Friday, 9:06 p.m.)

You cannot guard Chris McNaughton with one man. Not in the Patriot League, anyhow, where the 6-11 Bucknell sophomore has been all but unstoppable for two seasons when he manages to get isolated on a single defender.

Everybody in the league knows that, including Holy Cross, which threw two and three people at McNaughton every time he touched the ball in the two regular season meetings between the Bison and the Crusaders.

For some reason, though, the Crusaders somehow forgot about rule number one of defending Bucknell and paid for it with a 61-57 loss. It was only the sixth setback of the season for HC, but it probably was more costly than the other five combined. The loss snapped the Crusaders 16-game win streak, ending their dream of a Patriot League championship and in all likelihood their hopes of dancing in next week’s NCAA Tournament.

It should not be that way. As both coaches were quick to point out, you can certainly make a strong case for the Crusaders as an at large pick. But there are teams like that left out every year. The Patriot League has never gotten an at large bid, and the odds are probably against that trend changing this year.

Certainly HC will watch anxiously when the dance card is announced Sunday evening. But if they end up in the NIT, it will be because of McNaughton.

To be certain, McNaughton had a lot of help. Kevin Bettencourt (13 points) and Charles Lee (10) both reached double figures and Bucknell defended with the same intensity that got them to the final. After holding Lafayette and American to 34 and 35 points in the semis, the Bison played the same kind of defense in the final, especially in the first half, when they limited Holy Cross to 20 points and 21 percent shooting (6-of-28).

Bucknell’s three-game total of 126 points allowed is the lowest tournament total ever allowed by a Patriot League Champion that did not have a first round bye. It is only 5 points more than the league record for fewest points allowed by a champion, set by the 2001 HC team that got a pass in the first round back in the pre-American seven-team era.

“We defended every possession,” said Bucknell coach Pat Flannery.

All that defense, though, would have gone for naught if the Bison had not built the 20-point cushion that carried them when Holy Cross started pressing and trapping midway through the second half. Led by league player of the year Kevin Hamilton, who got four of his five steals in the second half, the Crusaders charged back, slicing Bucknell’s lead to 59-57with 58 seconds to go.

That 20-point cushion was primarily due to McNaughton, who took advantage of isolation on single HC defenders to score 17 points, including 12 in the first half when he went 5-for-5 from the floor.

“I got some good looks from my teammates. I got the ball where I could finish,” said McNaughton. “I was surprised they didn’t double me. They had the last two games. Today they didn’t come at me as much as they did.”

McNaughton didn’t just lead the Bison in scoring. His 7 rebounds were the game-high and although he wasn’t credited with any blocks, his presence in the paint altered a number of shots and caused others to be passed on completely.

Especially in the first half, when the Bison dominated the paint, outscoring HC 16-4 from close range.

It helped that Bettencourt, senior reserve Chris Niesz and freshman backup John Griffin combined for five three-pointers in the first half.

“We wanted to make sure we went inside out. We really shot the ball well, especially in the first half. That allowed (McNaughton) to get a lot of isolation looks,” Flannery said.

To Holy Cross’ credit, they never went away. Not even when Bucknell countered their 5-0 run at the start of the second half by scoring 9 of the next 11 points to push their lead back to 20, 47-27 with 15:20 remaining.

The Crusaders began to chip away, using a four three-pointers, including two by Hamilton, to cut the lead to 58-49 on a Hamilton trey with 4:28 to play. Hamilton finished with 21 to lead all scorers. Of those 21, 16 came in the second half as he led HC’s charge.

Then Holy Cross turned its already troublesome press up another notch. Hamilton made three straight steals, leading to four quick points, and with 2:18 left, it was 59-55. It was after the third steal that Bucknell’s Kevin Bettencourt made one of the big plays of the day, drawing a charge to give BU the ball back with 2:04 left.

Holy Cross was not done. After forcing a Bucknell shot clock violation to regain possession, Kevin Hyland put back a John Hurley miss to cut the lead to 59-57, with 58 ticks still on the clock.

“You knew that run was coming,” Flannery said. “They are a great team. We knew they were going to come.”

McNaughton’s only miss of the night followed, with Hamilton grabbing the rebound for a chance to tie. But Hamilton’s short jumper at the other end was off the mark, and Bettencourt rebounded for Bucknell, drawing a foul with 8 seconds left.

That was the wrong guy to put on the line for Holy Cross. The Bison’s top foul shooter, who ranks third in the league, made them both, finishing the night 7-for-7 from the line and sealing the Bucknell win.

The win was a payback of sorts for the Bison, though most of them were still in grade school when the loss they avenged took place. In 1993, Bucknell was the regular season champion with a 13-1 league mark and the homecourt in the finals, only to see Holy Cross come to Lewisburg and cut down the nets.

The one Bison who remembers that game was Bettencourt, whose brother Ted was on that Holy Cross team. Early in the game, some HC fans used that tidbit to taunt Bettencourt, yelling “Teddy was better.”

Maybe so. But in this night, in this gym, it was Bucknell that was better. How much better? The scoreboard said 4 points.

NOTES: The win was Bucknell’s first after four losses in previous finals . . . Bucknell’s last trip to the NCAA Tournament was in 1989, when Charlie Woolum’s Breakin’ Bison gained entry after winning the title in the old East Coast Conference . . . Lee was named the tournament MVP . . . McNaughton joined him on the All-Tournament team . . . Also on the all-tourney squad were Lehigh’s Joe Knight, Hamilton and Hurley, who had 11 points in the final
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