LEWISBURG The Army sideline and the small section of fans behind the bench exploded with under five minutes remaining when Kyle Wilson's driving layup and ensuing free throw gave the underdog Black Knights their second lead over top-seeded Bucknell.
The exuberance did little to rattle the Patriot League's heavyweight that won the regular season by two games as a steely look remained deadpanned in all their faces with their season on the brink. Bucknell, which let home-court advantage to slip through its fingers during last season's Patriot League Tournament championship game, wasn't about to lose its shot at redemption.
Trailing by two points with a chance to return to a third consecutive league tournament final, senior Bryson Johnson raised up from the 3-point line in front of his own bench. It was a scene that has been played over and over again and it had a familiar finish. Johnson knocked down the 3-pointer and Cameron Ayers followed with a coast-to-coast layup that restored Bucknell's lead and helped the Bison to finally turn away the fourth-seeded Black Knights, 78-70, on Saturday at Sojka Pavilion.
"I feel like, and I'm sure our guys will say, I've been through a prize fight," Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen said. "I have unbelievable respect for Army."
Bucknell, which became the 24th consecutive top seed to win a semifinal in league tournament play, will host Lafayette on Wednesday night. The second-seeded Leopards defeated rival Lehigh, 82-69, in the other semifinal.
The Bison (27-5) split the season series with the Leopards, winning at home on Jan. 19, 66-51, before falling at Lafayette, 63-62, on Feb. 16.
Saturday's win was Bucknell's third over Army, but the final two were by a combined 10 points after the Bison defeated the Black Knights by 21 in a Patriot League opener on Jan. 12.
Army (16-15) never trailed by double digits yesterday in a physical game that saw the teams combined for 46 fouls and 63 free throws. Bucknell's Mike Muscala, who played 37 minutes, did an admirable job fighting through the contact and finished with 21 points and 14 rebounds for his 21st double-double of the season in front Atlanta Hawks GM Danny Ferry, who sat along press row with a scout from the Indiana Pacers. Muscala also became the first Bison player and the fifth in Patriot League history to surpass 2,000 career points.
The senior helped close out the game over the final three-plus minutes from the foul line, making 5 of 6 during a stretch that saw Bucknell's two-point lead grow to seven with 1:48 left.
"I thought it was a heck of a gut check victory," Paulsen said. "I thought we played with a lot of toughness down the stretch, especially when they went up. We were teetering on the ropes and then Bryson hit a big shot."
Junior Cameron Ayers gave Muscala the opportunity to put away the pesky Black Knights with a big second half. He scored 17 of his 19 points after halftime, including big baskets that put the Bison up three points after Army closed to one on a couple of occasions.
"Cam put us on his back for a good stretch of time in the second half," Paulsen said.
Johnson was the third Bison in double figures with 12 points.
Five Army players reached double figures led by Wilson's 21. The freshman showed no fear in his first Patriot League semifinal and gave Army both its leads with a 3-pointer to make it 3-2 early in the first half and a drive plus foul that made it 61-59 with 4:52 remaining.
Johnson erased both leads with 3-pointers his only two field goals of the contest. Army's final advantage lasted 37 seconds before Johnson made it 62-61.
"It was a big shot by him," Army coach Zach Spiker said. "He's hit big shots throughout his career."
Kyle Toth added 13 points for the Black Knights. Senior Ella Ellis, Kevin Ferguson and Larry Toomey all had 11. Ellis, a first-team All-Patriot performer, played only 20 minutes and fouled out late in the contest.
Bucknell's 27th win of the season matched the 2005-06 team for the program record, but the Bison want to match that team with an NCAA tournament bid.
"I don't want to play in the NIT again," Muscala said.
He can avoid that with a win Wednesday.
Ellis 1-3 9-10 11, Ferguson 3-3 5-7 11, Toth 4-10 3-6 13, Cox 0-3 0-0 0, Wilson 7-19 6-6 21, Lenox 1-2 1-2 3, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, Herbeck 0-1 0-0 0, Toomey 3-8 3-4 11, Springer 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 19-50 27-35 70.
Willman 4-6 0-0 8, Muscala 7-15 7-8 21, Kaspar 1-1 2-2 4, Johnson 2-8 6-6 12, Ayers 8-16 3-4 19, Fitzpatrick 1-3 2-2 4, Hill 1-2 2-4 5, Frazier 1-1 2-2 5, Brackney 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 25-53 24-28 78.
Halftime-Bucknell 36-31. 3-Point Goals-Army 5-18 (Toomey 2-5, Toth 2-8, Wilson 1-4, Cox 0-1), Bucknell 4-12 (Johnson 2-7, Frazier 1-1, Hill 1-1, Muscala 0-1, Ayers 0-2). Fouled Out-Ellis. Rebounds-Army 28 (Ferguson 6), Bucknell 31 (Muscala 14). Assists-Army 15 (Cox 4), Bucknell 12 (Ayers, Hill, Kaspar, Willman 2). Total Fouls-Army 23, Bucknell 23. A-2,784.