LEWISBURG, Pa. - Zach Thomas matched his season average with 24 points, hauled in nine rebounds and dished out five assists as the Bucknell men's basketball team posted its fourth win in its last five games with an 81-77 victory over Vermont in an exciting battle of reigning conference champions Saturday evening at Sojka Pavilion. The Bison used an 8-0 run late in the second half that featured key 3-pointers by Bruce Moore and Nate Sestina to break a 58-58 tie. Bucknell led by 10 in the final minutes and then held off the Catamounts for the win.
Bucknell's starting five totaled 71 of the team's points as Stephen Brown tallied 17, Nana Foulland 14 and Moore and Jimmy Sotos eight apiece. Sestina was a valuable player off the bench, making all four of his field goal attempts, including two critical 3-pointers on consecutive possessions late in the contest, and tallying 10 points. He played 12 minutes, mostly in relief of Foulland, who fouled out in the final minute.
Nana brings some thunder! Great game as expected. Bison lead it 33-31 with 3:02 left in the half. pic.twitter.com/3nk4yVXmIZ— Bucknell MBasketball (@Bucknell_MBB) December 3, 2017
Bucknell (4-5) shot 51.9 percent from the field, including a combined 20-for-32 performance by Thomas, Brown and Foulland. Vermont (6-2) converted 48.1 percent of its field goals and had four starters in double figures, led by 20 points from Anthony Lamb. The Catamounts had won 27 of their last 29 games dating back to last season, with the only losses coming against Purdue in the 2017 NCAA Tournament and Kentucky by just four points in this year's season opener.
The Bison led 39-37 at the half, then opened the second stanza with a 9-2 run, keyed by a pair of buckets by Foulland, a long three by Thomas, and a fastbreak layup by Brown. But Vermont quickly made up the deficit, scoring 10 straight points while holding Bucknell scoreless for more than four minutes. An Ernie Duncan 3-pointer gave the Catamounts the lead back at 52-50. Thomas' tip-in ended the run, and then the teams traded blows for the next three minutes.
Brown's late-shot-clock 3-pointer put the Bison in front 58-57, and then Lamb split a pair of free throws to knot the game at 58. Coming out of the under-eight media timeout, Bucknell made its run.
Brown grabbed a defensive rebound and passed ahead to Moore, who splashed a right-wing 3-pointer. Thomas fed Foulland for a layup, but then Foulland picked up his fourth foul at the other end. Sestina came off the bench to replace him, and after Payton Henson missed two free throws, Sestina hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it 66-58.
Vermont called a timeout and went back inside to Lamb for a layup, but then Sestina stepped into another bomb from nearly the identical spot, giving the Bison a 69-60 lead. After two Henson charity tosses, Thomas hit one from about 28 feet to give Bucknell it's largest lead of 10 points at 72-62 with 3:30 left.
But the veteran Catamounts still had a run left in them. Down 74-64, they received a three from Duncan, got a pair of defensive stops, and then a 3-point play from Henson with 55 seconds left that cut it to 74-70. After the freshman Sotos hit both ends of a 1-and-1, Trae Bell-Haynes finished a third-chance put-back and drew a foul. His free throw made it 76-73 with 35 seconds to go.
Sotos made 1 of 2 at the line, and then Bell-Haynes scored to make it 77-75. The Bison then turned the ball over on the inbounds, and Henson's three from the left wing that would have given Vermont the lead was too strong off the back iron. Thomas skied for his ninth rebound and made two free throws at the other end with 14 seconds left. After another Vermont miss, Sotos sealed it with two more at the line for an 81-75 margin with 6.6 ticks remaining.
"From a fan's perspective this was a very entertaining game between two good teams," said head coach Nathan Davis afterward. "We knew this was going to be a tremendous challenge coming in. Vermont is really good. You don't win 27 of your last 29 games without having extremely talented players and being well-coached. But I was really proud of our guys. After the way we played on Wednesday [in a loss at Saint Joseph's], we bounced back with a great practice and really played well tonight."
The Bison got out to a great start, hitting six of their first seven shots en route to an early 14-8 lead. Brown's elbow jumper made it 17-10, but Vermont battled back to take the lead at 23-22 on an Everett Duncan 3-point play. That was one of eight lead changes in the final eight minutes of the first half. Overall there were eight ties and 15 lead changes.
Bucknell and Vermont had only met twice previously, both coming in season-opening, neutral-site tournaments in 1994, which was Pat Flannery's very first game as Bucknell's head coach, and 2001. The Catamounts won both of those, and a few years later the two programs would be forever linked by their NCAA Tournament upsets just a few hours apart on March 18, 2005. Vermont knocked off fourth-seeded Syracuse, and then later in the evening Bucknell beat third-seeded Kansas.
Both teams were No. 13 seeds in last year's NCAA Tournament and were unanimous picks to repeat as conference champions this year.
For Thomas, his performance continued a remarkable start to his senior season. He hit 7 of 9 shots from the field, 5 of 7 from 3-point range and 5 of 6 from the foul line, giving him 20 or more points in seven of the team's nine games on the season. He entered the night ranked seventh nationally in scoring at 24.1 points per game. It was the fourth time this year he made five 3-pointers in a game. Thomas' streak of four straight games shooting at least 10 free throws came to an end, but he moved past Chris Simpson into 18th place on Bucknell's career scoring list with 1,239 points.
Foulland also moved up a spot, passing Mike Butts for 13th place with 1,363 points. Foulland was 7-for-12 from the field and also blocked three shots in the game.
Brown eclipsed the 900-point mark (901) with his 17 points, and he led all players with six assists.
Now 3-0 at home this season, Bucknell will be on the road for its next three games, starting with a Dec. 5 contest at Northeastern.