LEWISBURG, Pa. – After celebrating Senior Night just prior to the game, Cameron Ayers and Brian Fitzpatrick went out and turned in two of the best performances of their careers to lead Bucknell to an important 73-61 win over Army in a hard-fought battle on Saturday night at Sojka Pavilion. Ayers scored 13 of his game-high 22 points in Bucknell’s decisive 23-9 run over final seven minutes, and Fitzpatrick logged 15 points and eight rebounds to help the Bison draw within one game of Army for the key No. 4 position in the Patriot League standings.
Chris Hass also tallied 15 points and eight rebounds, and the Bison (12-13, 7-7) received big minutes from Cory Starkey and John Azzinaro off the bench en route to their second straight victory. The Bison played without the services of three frontcourt players – Ben Brackney and D.J. MacLeay missed their second straight game with injuries and Ben Oberfield was not able to go due to an illness – but Starkey stepped in with six points and six rebounds in 17 minutes. Azzinaro had five points, including a big 3-pointer with 5:43 to play that stretched a one-point lead to four, and handed out four assists with no turnovers in 17 minutes against Army's high-pressure defense.
Ayers was magnificent at both ends of the floor. After a 3-for-11 start, he made three of his last four shots, including the go-ahead 3-pointer from deep in the right corner with 7:01 left. He hit another trey with 3:04 left that pushed Bucknell’s lead up to nine at 64-55, and then he iced the game by going 5-for-6 from the foul line in the final 1:32.
Defensively, Ayers drew the primary assignment on the Patriot League’s No. 2 scorer Kyle Wilson, who came in averaging 18.9 points per game. Wilson, who scored 28 in Army’s 74-67 win over the Bison at West Point last month, did not make a field goal and was held to just two points. He was scoreless until hitting a free throw with 1:14 left in the game.
Army (12-13, 8-6) was led by Tanner Omlid with 12 points and seven rebounds off the bench. Dylan Cox added nine points, as did Mac Hoffman, who had not scored a point all season but hit three 3-pointers in this one.
After seven early lead changes, Bucknell pieced together the first extended run for either side midway through the first half. Starkey’s reverse layup off a feed from Fitzpatrick put the Bison ahead 16-15, and that was followed by a short jump hook from Fitzpatrick and a driving layup by Kaspar. Later in the half Ryan Frazier scored on a nifty double-clutch reverse layup, and Fitzpatrick drove hard down the lane for a layup to complete a 19-7 surge and give Bucknell a 33-22 lead.
The Bison exited halftime with a 37-29 advantage, but then Army started to heat up from long distance. After shooting just 3-for-12 from 3-point range in the first half, the Black Knights hit five threes in the first 12 minutes of the second.
Josh Herbeck’s trey at the 10:28 mark gave Army the lead back at 46-45. At the other end, the Bison had a shot blocked out-of-bounds with one second on the shot clock. In the earlier meeting at West Point, Herbeck hit two impossible 3-pointers with the shot clock expiring late in the game, and this time Hass turned the tables on the Black Knights. Hass caught the inbounds pass deep on the left wing and swished the shot as the buzzer sounded to put the Bison back in front.
After a Fitzpatrick put-back, Army got back-to-back treys from Hoffman and Omlid to go back up 52-50 with 8:06 to play. It was all Bison from that point on, however. Hass was fouled driving to the basket, and after the under-8 media timeout he hit both free throws to tie the game. Then Ayers got going with the three from the corner, and the Bison would never trail again.
Bucknell entered the day tied for fifth place with Lehigh in the Patriot League standings. But the Mountain Hawks lost to Holy Cross, meaning the Bison are now in sole possession of fifth and just one game in back of Army. Finishing in the top four is important, as it would guarantee a home game in the Patriot League Tournament quarterfinals.
“This was just a great performance by all of our guys,” said head coach Dave Paulsen, who moved into sole possession of third place on Bucknell’s all-time wins list with 111. “This was our last weekend home game, and it was a great way for our seniors to go out in front of their families. The effort and focus level tonight was outstanding. Cameron Ayers was great defensively and then obviously hit some key shots down the stretch. Army plays really physically, and they pressure the ball and deny passing lanes. You really have to grind it out. When we lost the lead, we didn’t panic and showed great resolve.”
Bucknell outrebounded Army 42-30 on the night. The Bison shot 43.6 percent overall but went 7-for-12 from 3-point range and 18-for-21 from the foul line. Army shot 40.7 percent, including an 8-for-26 showing from the arc, but the Black Knights struggled at the foul line making just 5 of 13. Both teams committed nine turnovers in a fierce contest that featured multiple pileups and players crashing to the floor for loose balls.
“We are starting to make progress defensively,” said Paulsen. “Earlier in the year we just couldn’t get stops when we needed them, but we are making progress there.”
Prior to the game, Fitzpatrick, Ayers, Brackney and Ryan Hill were honored as part of Senior Night ceremonies. Hill started at point guard and collected three assists without a turnover. Fitzpatrick is a graduate student in his final year of eligibility with the Bison. In two games against Army this season he scored 32 points on 15-for-18 shooting. The Patriot League leader in field-goal percentage was 7-for-10 in this one, including a big 3-pointer off an inbounds play that gave Bucknell a seven-point lead with 5:12 to play.
Ayers recorded his 19th straight double-digit scoring game and his sixth 20-point performance of the season. He did it with his father, Randy Ayers, in the stands. Randy Ayers is an assistant coach with the New Orleans Pelicans, but he was able attend his son’s Senior Night with the NBA on its all-star break this weekend.
Paulsen’s 111th Bucknell victory came with the program’s all-time wins leader Charlie Woollum (318) in attendance, along with many of his players and staff from the 1988-89 team that was celebrating the 25th anniversary of its East Coast Conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance.
Bucknell will now play three of its final four regular-season games on the road, starting with Loyola Maryland on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in Baltimore.