LEWISBURG, Pa. – Zach Thomas filled up the stat sheet with a career-high-tying 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals to send Bucknell to a 76-64 win over Manhattan in the season opener for both teams on Friday night at Sojka Pavilion. Stephen Brown added 11 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals for the Bison, who won their home opener for the eighth straight year.
Sophomore Nate Sestina, back on the floor after missing almost all of the 2015-16 season with a shoulder injury, chipped in 10 points off the bench, and reserve guard Matt O'Reilly hit 3 of 4 from 3-point range and added a career-high nine points.
“This was an excellent opener for us,” said head coach Nathan Davis. “Manhattan is a good team, they are physical and well-coached, and they are hard to prepare for with their extreme defensive pressure. It was a great opportunity for us to show that we can compete with big, physical guys.”
The Bison got out to a 2-for-10 shooting start and also left a number of points on the free-throw line early in the game. But they never trailed by more than five at 9-4 thanks to some stellar defense. Bucknell forced 24 Manhattan turnovers, resulting in 14 steals, and held the Jaspers to 35.5 percent shooting on the night.
“The biggest thing is that we guarded tonight,” said Davis. “We helped well and got a lot of deflections and steals. We forced them to take a lot of tough shots.”
So even though the Bison managed just the two made field goals in the first eight minutes of the game, they were still in a 9-9 contest at that point. Freshman Bruce Moore gave Bucknell a big spark and got the crowd into the game right at that time, as he blocked two consecutive shots right at the rim, and then Nana Foulland dove on the floor for the loose ball and called timeout.
That seemed to get Bucknell going, and the Bison made nine of their last 17 shots in the half. After O’Reilly made a layup to tie the game at 31, Bucknell took the lead for good on a pair of Thomas free throws with 45 seconds left in the half. Two more charity tosses by Brown made it 35-31 at the break.
Bucknell stretched the margin to 11 at 47-36 on a pretty feed from Thomas to Sestina for a layup, but then the Bison went dry, missing three shots and turning the ball over twice on the next five possessions. That allowed Manhattan to pull within two on a short jumper by 7’2” center Ahmed Ismail.
Sestina then scored six straight Bison points to help see them through that stretch, and even though the Jaspers got back within one on two occasions, Bucknell never surrendered the lead.
Then it was Brown’s turn to take over the game. His defensive rebound and mad dash down the floor for a coast-to-coast layup capped a 13-5 run and pushed the margin up to nine at 66-57. After three Manhattan free throws, Brown drained a 3-pointer to make it a nine-point game again, then he hit a long two late in the shot clock to make it 72-61.
Foulland, who had a quiet night thanks to some foul trouble, put an exclamation point on the contest with a monster tip-dunk to make it 74-61 in the final minute.
“Once we started moving the ball a little better in the halfcourt offense, it opened up some lanes and we got better shots. I thought we looked a little nervous at the start, especially with getting some young guys into the game early, but everyone got better as the game went along.”
Bucknell shot 56.0 percent in the second half to finish at 48.1 percent for the game. That includes a 7-for-18 (.389) showing from 3-point distance. Bucknell went 19-for-32 (.594) from the foul line.
Thomas had a huge game, hitting 7 of 12 from the floor and 10 of 14 from the line. He equaled his career high in points, made free throws, assists and blocks. He also scored 25 points last season at North Carolina State.
Foulland finished with eight points and six rebounds, and first-year starter Nate Jones had four assists and three steals, along with a big 3-pointer late in the game. He also got the team’s first bucket of the year, a breakaway jam in the opening minutes.
Freshmen Moore and Avi Toomer both saw a handful of minutes off the bench, as Davis used 11 players in the game. Toomer’s first collegiate points came on a nice reverse layup in the first half.
Thomas Capuano led Manhattan with 11 points and five assists. Zavier Turner also hit double figures with 10 points, and Ismail had nine points and a game-high nine rebounds. Manhattan piled up 19 offensive rebounds and finished with a 45-31 edge on the glass.
The victory came in front of a large contingent of basketball alumni, who were back on hand for the dedication of the new Charlie Woollum Lobby in Sojka Pavilion. The Hall-of-Fame coach cut the ribbon in a pregame ceremony, then was honored again on the floor at halftime.
The Bison are right back in action Sunday at Wake Forest at 2 p.m. The game will air on the ACC Network Extra, ESPN3 and the WatchESPN app.