WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chris Hass scored 15 points and Cory Starkey led another phenomenal effort on the glass with a career-high 11 rebounds to propel Bucknell to its sixth straight win to close out the regular season, 56-51 over American on Saturday afternoon at Bender Arena. The Bison were locked into the No. 4 seed at next week’s Patriot League Tournament regardless of the outcome, but they outrebounded American 45-26 and spoiled the second-place Eagles’ attempt to claim the top seed.
The hard-fought result gives Bucknell at least one victory over every team in the Patriot League this season, and the Bison head into the playoffs with a 16-13 overall record, 11-7 in the conference.
As it turned out, American (17-12, 13-5) would not have caught Boston University for the regular-season title since the Terriers pulled out a 68-64 win at Holy Cross shortly after the Bucknell-American game concluded. The Eagles will be the No. 2 seed and play the winner of Monday night’s 7-10 game between Colgate and Navy.
Bucknell followed a familiar formula to victory in this one, dominating the glass while playing tough defense against an American team that entered the game ranked No. 2 nationally in field-goal percentage (.502). The Bison grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, which led to a 16-5 edge in second-chance points, and they now have a plus-86 rebounding margin during this six-game winning streak.
The biggest board of the day came from Starkey. The Bison had possession with a two-point lead inside a minute to play. With the shot clock winding down Hass had a shot in the lane partially blocked, but Starkey grabbed the air ball and stuck it back in to give Bucknell a 53-49 lead with 49 seconds remaining. American missed a three at the other end, Starkey skied for the rebound and then made 1 of 2 at the line to finish off a career-best nine-point, 11-rebound effort.
Entering play on Saturday American and Kansas were the only two teams in the country shooting over 50 percent as a team. But the Bison employed a strategy to leave select Eagles guards alone on the perimeter in order to clog up the lane against their Princeton-style offense. The plan worked, as American made only 5 of 25 3-point attempts while shooting a season-low 33.9 percent for the game.
The rebounding and defensive efforts allowed Bucknell to squeeze out a win on a day when it committed an uncharacteristic 16 turnovers and shot 42.0 percent from the field (2-for-9 from 3-point range).
After trailing 27-24 at halftime, American took a 35-34 lead on a running hook shot by Marko Vasic. But the Bison outscored the Eagles 9-0 over the next five minutes, highlighted by a Hass 3-point play and two straight buckets by Ayers.
Hass hit back-to-back shots inside six minutes to play to counter a quick 5-0 Eagles run. Charlie Jones hit a trey to bring American within 47-43, but then Steven Kaspar (six assists) made a great no-look feed to Starkey for a layup.
Hass splashed a 12-footer from the left baseline to put the Bison on top 51-45, but Tony Wroblicky answered with a layup for American. Wroblicky missed a free throw that could have made it a 3-point play, and then the two teams combined for five straight empty possessions before Jesse Reed hit two free throws to make it a 51-49 game with 1:11 left.
Starkey then came up with the game-winning play, extending his run of terrific play off the bench that has coincided with this six-game winning streak. Starkey now has 41 rebounds in those six games, including six or more in each of the last five. His nine points (on 4-for-5 shooting) against American was also a new career high.
Brian Fitzpatrick logged 10 points and eight rebounds and Ayers added nine points, ending his run of 22 straight double-digit outings. Reed was American’s lone double-figure scorer with 16 points.
Bucknell started the game 2-for-10 from the floor before warming up midway through the first half. The Bison hit 8 of 11 after the frosty start, and a Fitzpatrick jam off a pretty baseline feed by Kaspar kicked off a 14-2 run. Ayers and Azzinaro hit 3-pointers during the surge, and Fitzpatrick’s 17-footer gave the Bison a 26-19 lead with 4:06 left.
That would be Bucknell’s final field goal of the half, however, and a Jalen Rhea 3-pointer with 28 seconds left brought the Eagles within 27-24 at the break.
The victory was Bucknell’s fifth in a row at Bender Arena, and the Bison are now 34-21 all-time against American.
The Bucknell-Army Patriot League Tournament quarterfinal game will tip at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Sojka Pavilion. The game can be viewed live and free of charge on Bison Vision on the Patriot League Network.Monday’s opening-round games will feature No. 7 Colgate hosting No. 10 Navy and No. 8 Loyola hosting No. 9 Lafayette. In the quarterfinals, top-seeded Boston University will face the 8-9 winner, and No. 2 American will host the 7-10 winner. The other quarterfinal matchup will pit No. 6 Lehigh at No. 3 Holy Cross.