Ben Brackney and D.J. MacLeay made their way into Sojka Pavilion on Wednesday night dressed in suits and ties as their teammates made the turn right from out of their tunnel and continued with their warmups. It was another moment of adversity for a Bison team that has had difficulty defining themselves this season after losing a collection of record-breaking seniors.
The low point may have come on Sunday during a 66-50 loss at Holy Cross. Bucknell had a long bus ride back from Worcester, Mass., to think about its performance where it scored a season-low in points and suffered a second consecutive loss, dropping two games below .500 in league play and in danger of possibly playing a first-round Patriot League tournament game as one of the league's bottom four seeds.
The 16-point defeat left the Bison in one of those time to draw a line in the sand moments and had Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen talking about his team owning their energy, passion and fire.
Steven Kaspar (3) and Bucknell have been up and down all season.
Wednesday night against Navy, the Bison owned all three with pride, despite missing Brackney, a starter, and MacLeay, a freshman who had seen action in seven consecutive games. Bucknell delivered one of their most spirited efforts of the season and beat the Midshipmen, 78-57, and now can look ahead in the standings, for now, as they hold a one-game cushion over Loyola (Md.), in the race for the final bye into the tournament quarterfinals.
"We really got knocked to the mat on Sunday at Holy Cross and this was a big test for our guys to see how we would respond," Paulsen said. "Whether we made shots or not, we had to respond with toughness and energy and I thought we did a great job of it."
Bucknell had a season-high 14 steals against Navy and held a plus-11 advantage on the boards. It was the first time this season the Bison had more than nine steals in a game.
Six players came up with thefts, including four by Steven Kaspar. The lanky point guard had several deflections on Wednesday night and started for the first time in three games.
"So much of it is energy and hand activity and talking," Paulsen said. "In basketball, a half of step is everything. When you are a half-step quicker to the ball they have a hard time scoring but if you are a half-step slow with your rotations and then they are winning the turf battles."
The Bison (11-13, 6-7 Patriot League) lost very few of those battles against typically one of the tougher and physical teams in the league. Dom Hoffman started for the just the second time this season and had eight rebounds, including a team-high five off the offensive glass.
Although the Bucknell bench lost Kaspar and Hoffman to the starting the lineup, the reserves maintained the relentless attitude of the starters when they entered the game.
Cory Starkey provided a lift with four rebounds two offensive - and three steals in his most extensive action of the season and freshman Ben Oberfeld added six points and two rebounds and brought a physical presence to the paint with his 6-foot-9, 240 pound frame.
"It gives us all a little bit more confidence and I think that is exactly what we needed at this point of the season," Cameron Ayers said about the play of Oberfeld and Starkey. "They had their opportunity with a couple of people out and I think it just showed everybody what we are capable of doing. And like I've been saying, it's going to take all 14 of us to win this thing."
Oberfeld had one of two Bucknell blocks. In the middle of a pick-and-roll in front of the Navy bench and the shot clock winding down, Oberfeld shuffled his feet to keep his shoulders in front of Navy's Brandon Venturini who dribbled toward the baseline to try and create a crack of space to free himself for a jumper. Oberfeld, though, never allowed Venturini a clean look and blocked the shot away. The effort brought Oberfeld's teammates off their seats on the bench in a sign of appreciation.
It was just one instance where Bucknell closed out on a shooter or took away a driving lane. The Bison held Navy to 33 percent shooting in the first half as they built a 23-point lead.
"It takes an awful lot of energy to play with that kind of fire, emotion and intensity and now that's the challenge to these guys and I hope they feel it," Paulsen said. "That's what it has to be every single second you are playing. Every single second and it's hard work."
The Bison coach will hope for much the same on Saturday at Sojka Pavilion against fourth-place Army. The Black Knights, who are two games clear of the Bison in the standings, defeated Bucknell, 74-67, on Jan. 19.
"It was a total team effort (Wednesday) for sure, and as coach said that was the best energy we had all year and I think if we can keep that up we can play with anybody," Ayers said.
Time will tell.