By Genaro C. Armas
Friday, March 11, 2011; 7:37 PM
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- National powers, beware: Bucknell is headed back to the NCAA tournament.
Mike Muscala scored 18 points and Bucknell shut down Lafayette in the second half of a 72-57 victory Friday to win the Patriot League championship and an automatic bid to the NCAAs.
Bryson Johnson added 15 points and Cameron Ayers had 12 for the top-seeded Bison (25-8), who earned their first trip to the NCAAs since 2006. Back then they developed a reputation as giant killers with tournament upsets of Kansas in 2005 and Arkansas the following year.
Jared Mintz scored 16 points to lead the sixth-seeded Leopards (13-19), the lowest-seeded team to make the tournament final.
But breaking through against Bucknell at rowdy Sojka Pavilion proved to be too tough a task. The Bison opened a 16-point lead with less than 5 minutes left, when scads of orange-clad fans began celebrating early.
Lafayette narrowed an 11-point deficit to 47-42 with 13:40 left on Tony Johnson's layup before Bucknell pulled away for good.
"Bracket Buster" read one sign held up in the stands.
Six years after stunning Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Bucknell earned another chance to mess up brackets across the country.
Ayers hit from 15 feet out to open a 10-point lead for Bucknell, then sank a 3-pointer from the right wing with the shot clock winding down to give the Bison a 57-46 lead with 8:30 left.
The Leopards were overwhelmed from there, held to 8-of-26 shooting (31 percent) in the second half, and 34 percent for the game.
Bucknell's top-ranked Patriot League defense, which was limiting opponents to 39 percent shooting from the field, lived up to its reputation, while Lafayette lost a second straight trip to the conference finals.
With his team down by 16 with 1:32 left, Lafayette coach Fran O'Hanlon pulled his best player, Mintz. Bucknell coach Dave Paulsen soon followed suit by resting his starters the rest of the way, exchanging bear hugs with each player before they took a seat.
The creative Bucknell fans - another Bison follower held up a sign that read "Even Sheen Picks Bucknell" in reference to actor Charlie Sheen - took over from there, storming the court after the final buzzer while each held one finger in the air.
Tony Johnson added 12 points and Jim Mower had 11 for Lafayette.
The 6-foot-11 Muscala was selected the tournament's most valuable player. No wonder, with a mid-range jumper that made him a tough matchup for opposing defenders.
Fans cried out "Moooose" nearly every time he touched the ball.
Muscala and Paulsen, in his third year on the bench, have Bucknell celebrating an NCAA appearance for the first time since the halcyon days of the mid-2000s.