LEWISBURG, Pa., March 6 -- Three weeks ago, American made the trip to this tiny town in Central Pennsylvania and lost a 13-point decision to Bucknell. Prior to Sunday's rematch in the Patriot League semifinals, Eagles Coach Jeff Jones was asked what his team had to do differently to change that outcome.
"Everything," he answered.
Forty minutes of basketball later, almost nothing had changed. The Bison shut the Eagles down from start to finish, holding leading scorers Andre Ingram and Jason Thomas to a combined six points, and pulled away midway through the second half for a 53-35 victory.
Bucknell (21-9) will travel Friday to play top-seeded Holy Cross (which survived in overtime against Lehigh) in the championship game. The Eagles (16-12) failed to make the tournament final for the first time in their four years in the Patriot League.
Matej Cresnik, who scored a career-high 30 points in AU's victory over Navy on Friday, led the Eagles with 12 points. No one else scored more than five. Ingram made only 2 of 12 shots from the field and finished with five points, and Thomas missed all seven of his field goal attempts and scored just one point in his last college game. American shot 28 percent for the game and was hammered 42-22 on the boards. Bucknell had three players in double figures: Chris Niesz and Chris McNaughton had 11 each and Charles Lee had 10.
"They just wore us down," said Jones, whose team trailed 22-21 early in the second half before being outscored 31-14 the rest of the way. "We had a lot of trouble putting the ball in the basket but a lot of the credit for that has to go to their defense. It's a disappointing way to end, but that's the way it goes."
The Bison took control with a 14-3 run early in the second half, keyed by Niesz, a senior whose playing time has dwindled the past two years because of scholarship players joining the program. He had four rebounds and two assists and played tough defense inside, getting 24 minutes of playing time because of McNaughton's foul trouble.
"He gave us a real boost," Bucknell Coach Pat Flannery said. "He's played with a real sense of urgency the last few weeks."
Jones knew his team was going to need some transition baskets because the Bison are so difficult to score against in their half-court defense. On Friday, in the first round, they held Lafayette to 34 points. The Eagles barely topped that, unable to get uncontested shots for almost the entire game. In the second half, Bucknell switched to a zone defense and consistently pushed AU's players outside their shooting range.
"When we looked at them on film, we thought we could get physical with them," Lee said. "We wanted to push them outside their comfort zone and keep a body on them because it looked to us as if they didn't really like that. We knew if we could stop Ingram and Thomas, that would make it tough on them. I thought they got rattled by our defense after awhile."
Neither Jones nor Ingram disputed that.
"Much as it bothers me to say it, I think we've gotten a reputation in the league as not being the toughest team there is," Jones said. "We've got a lot of guys who have worked hard this year and come a long way to get past that, but I don't think that philosophy is unique to Bucknell. It's something we have to keep working to overcome."
Ingram didn't take a shot in the first half before going to the bench after seven minutes with two fouls. Thomas also was scoreless at that stage, but the Eagles hung close by playing solid defense and went to halftime trailing 18-16. "I had thought I might put Andre back in before halftime," Jones said. "But the way the game was going, I didn't have to risk it."
McNaughton also was on the bench with two fouls and leading scorer Kevin Bettencourt, who the Eagles held to one point for the day, was also scoreless at the break. "We didn't mind that score," Lee said. "We think when a game goes like that, it's to our advantage. We know when we aren't scoring much, our defense will always be there."
It was a disappointing ending for the Eagles' three seniors, Thomas, Cresnik and Raimondas Petrauskas, especially since there is no chance AU will receive an NIT bid even though it completed a fourth straight winning season.
"The last three years we made the final and didn't get any consideration at all," Jones said. "That's certainly frustrating."
Just like the entire day was for Jones and for his basketball team.