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Bucknell snaps its 5-game losing skid

LEWISBURG — With every missed free throw by Bucknell in the final three minutes, American kept getting a second chance. The Bison are a solid free-throw shooting team, but Saturday afternoon at Sojka Pavilion, it was hurting them.

American had cut a 12-point deficit down to three with 20 seconds to play, but Bucknell did just enough to keep its distance and not allow American to rally and extend Bucknell’s recent woes.

Bucknell held on for a narrow 72-68 win at home Saturday, snapping a rough five-game losing streak and ending American’s five-game winning streak in the process.

“I thought for a much large stretch of the game we made winning plays. And by winning plays, I mean just the right rotations,” Bucknell coach Nathan Davis said. “We were making the right reads with the way they were doing ball screens.”

Bucknell honored former Bison great Mike Muscala at halftime by retiring his No. 31 jersey. He’s one of just three men’s players at Bucknell to have his jersey retired, joining Hal Danzig and Al Leslie.

Kahliel Spear was huge for the Bison (10-17, 6-8 Patriot League) off the bench, scoring a career-high 20 points and grabbing a team-high nine rebounds against American (13-12, 9-5 Patriot League).

“I’d say this was my best game ever, in my college career, definitely. I feel like I just came out with a lot of energy, there was a different energy before the game. All the guys wanted to come to win this. We felt like we were stumped, we were really stumped about how we lost the last game to American, so we just didn’t want to drop this one.”

After American opened the game with a field goal, Bucknell proceeded to go on a 10-0 run to take a lead that it wouldn’t relinquish the remainder of the game. Bucknell led by as many as 11 and 10 twice each in the first half, but American never stopped fighting. American outscored the Bison, 10-2, at one point late in the first half to cut the deficit down to two before Bucknell’s Avi Toomer made a 3-point play to put Bucknell ahead, 35-30, going into halftime.

In addition to Spear’s huge effort, John Meeks scored 11 points and grabbed eight rebounds and Walter Ellis came off the bench for a 10-point performance.

“I think my performance shooting-wise is based on my teammates,” Ellis said, who was 3 for 5 from 3-point range. “I think they trust me to make shots and if I’m open, they expect me to shoot it. They gave me some looks early. It’s really just a product of the game with how we ran the offense.”

Sa’eed Nelson was huge for American, scoring 28 points and having a team-high eight rebounds. But despite Nelson’s presence on the floor, Bucknell did well from a defensive standpoint throughout the game, contesting shots and not allowing many open looks or easy drives.

“We got a lot of guys that can do a lot of things. We’re not the best at breaking guys down one-on-one like their guy (Sa’eed) Nelson is. We do what we can do,” Davis said. “We got guys that can all catch and shoot. All can rip hard and get by guys and pass. It’s important for us to make the right reads on ball screens and get teams in long close outs. If we can do that, we can attack the paint and that’s the way we’re going to get shots in.”

After a missed second free throw by American’s Yilret Yiljep, Connor Nelson was right there boxing out to get the rebound and score on a putback to tie the game at 37 with just over 14 minutes to play.

But that was the only time that American tied the game in the second half. Bucknell proceeded to go on a quick 6-0 run to reclaim the lead after that, including a huge tip-in and then dunk by Spear before Toomer scored on a layup. The closest American would cut the deficit following that is when Stacy Beckton Jr. drilled a 3-pointer with 10:40 to play to make it a 46-44 deficit.

“I thought we did a lot of good things. It was far from perfect,” Davis said. “Missed a couple free throw block outs, which really shouldn’t happen. … I did think we lost a couple shooters, but for the most part, we were on them. … We did enough defensively that we wanted to do to get a win.”

Bucknell is hoping to have its second two-game win streak of the season as it travels to Holy Cross on Monday. It’s the first of consecutive road trips for the Bison, as they travel to Lehigh Sunday, Feb. 23. But snapping a five-game losing skid was something Bucknell is glad it was able to do to get back to winning.

“The difference between winning and losing every game is very small. Obviously losing five in a row is not what you want. There’s nothing we can do about those previous five,” Davis said. “We had opportunities to win those games, we didn’t. Today we got a win. We got to make sure we come out on Monday night and play better. … They’ve (Holy Cross) been battling in every game. If we think we’re going to go up there and all is good, then we got a world of hurt coming to us.”

Bucknell 72, American 68

AMERICAN U. (13-12)

C.Nelson 2-12 2-2 7, Gasperini 3-5 0-0 6, Beckton 2-6 2-2 7, Harris 1-4 0-0 2, S.Nelson 12-23 4-10 28, Lubarsky 0-2 0-0 0, Yiljep 3-6 0-2 6, Alexander 5-7 2-4 12. Totals 28-65 10-20 68.

BUCKNELL (10-17)

Meeks 4-7 1-4 11, Newman 4-11 1-2 9, Funk 2-8 1-4 6, Sotos 1-3 3-5 6, Toomer 3-9 1-2 8, Spear 7-10 4-6 20, Ellis 3-5 1-2 10, Rice 1-3 0-0 2, van der Heijden 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-56 12-25 72.

Halftime: Bucknell 35-30. 3-point goals: American U. 2-18 (Beckton 1-4, C.Nelson 1-9, Lubarsky 0-1, Harris 0-2, S.Nelson 0-2), Bucknell 10-25 (Ellis 3-5, Meeks 2-3, Spear 2-3, Sotos 1-3, Funk 1-5, Toomer 1-5, Rice 0-1). Fouled Out: C.Nelson, Toomer. Rebounds: American U. 39 (Beckton, S.Nelson, Yiljep 8), Bucknell 32 (Spear 9). Assists: American U. 13 (C.Nelson 6), Bucknell 17 (Funk, Sotos 5). Technical fouls: American U.-none; Bucknell-none. Total Fouls: American U. 19, Bucknell 19. A: 2,785 (4,000).

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