Mike Muscala’s inside game battered American University for most of Thursday night’s Patriot League game at Bender Arena, but just as the Eagles thought they were in position to upend Bucknell and create a three-way tie for first place, the Bison beat them from the outside.
First, Bryan Cohen made a three-pointer, then Bryson Johnson hit one, and Cameron Ayers added a third in rapid succession, turning a one-point game into a 10-point advantage with 21 / 2 minutes left. The uprising ultimately led to a 55-50 victory that clinched the top seed for Bucknell in the conference tournament.
“Our defense was pretty good. I don’t think we could’ve played any harder,” Eagles Coach Jeff Jones said after his team limited the Bison to 33.3 percent shooting.
With the loss, the Eagles (18-10, 9-4) will finish no higher than third and, depending on the outcome of their regular season finale Saturday, will host Lafayette or Army in a quarterfinal Wednesday. Bucknell (21-8, 11-2) swept the season series for the third straight year and handed AU its first home loss in 12 outings.
Muscala, a 6-foot-11 junior, continued his rule over the Eagles, recording 26 points and 14 rebounds. Last year in Washington, he scored a career-high 33 points with 10 rebounds and five blocked shots.
While Muscala thrived, AU star Charles Hinkle, who was averaging 19.1 points, scored a season-low three on 1-for-9 shooting. He had failed to reach double figures just twice previously, but Cohen stuck to him throughout the game and forced him into awkward attempts.
Unable to free himself, Hinkle was left to set screens for teammates. Point guard Daniel Munoz scored 15 points and shooting guard Troy Brewer added 13, but the Eagles shot 36.5 percent and stumbled down the stretch.
Muscala, who entered the game averaging 19.4 points in his career against AU, scored his team’s first eight points, had 14 of its 24 in the first half and converted inside to give the Bison the lead for good, 41-40, with 61 / 2 minutes left.
“When we saw him as a freshman, he was a guy who shot more jump shots and made you pay,” Jones said. “He still has that in his game, but he’s gotten stronger, tougher, more aggressive.”
Added Brewer: “They draw attention to him and then when you leave your man, they can throw it out to the other guys.”
And the other guys punished the Eagles at the end. After AU missed two chances to regain the lead, Cohen hit a three-pointer from the top of the key and Johnson added his third of the game from almost the same spot for a 47-40 lead. The Eagles missed their third straight, and Ayers connected from the right wing with 2 minutes 25 seconds left.
“Baskets didn’t come easy,” Jones said, “and when you get three in a row, that’s a big shot in the arm.”
The Eagles answered with six points in a row and, with Bucknell missing free throws, had a chance to make a late run. But with a five-point margin, Muscala blocked Blake Jolivette’s drive with 17 seconds left to seal it.
“Knowing we’re there, play by play, definitely helps our confidence knowing we can beat them,” Hinkle said. “We’ll see them again.”
With this outcome, however, the Eagles will probably need to win at second-place Lehigh in the semifinals to set up a rematch.
“In the end,” Jones said, “Muscala was too good and they got extra opportunities and made big shots.”