BUFFALO, N.Y. – Bucknell went toe-to-toe with fourth-seeded West Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday afternoon but came up just a little short, falling 86-80 in front of a crowd of over 17,000 fans at KeyBank Center. The Bison wrap up a sensational, title winning campaign with a 26-9 record, while the Mountaineers (27-8) advance to play Notre Dame on Saturday.
A large and spirited group of orange-clad Bucknell fans filled all of Section 116 in addition to other areas throughout the arena, and the Bison also had the support of many casual fans rooting for an upset. It appeared that they might get what they wished for, as Bucknell stayed within an arm’s length of the big and talented Mountaineers for much of the day.
“Any time your season ends it is never easy, especially when you have a group of guys as great as ours,” said head coach Nathan Davis. “There was not a single day all season when I didn’t look forward to coming in and working with them. They were easy to coach, because they worked so hard and wanted to be good. People point to the fact that we have a lot of guys coming back next year, and we do, but you can’t take anything for granted, and we should celebrate the accomplishments of this team.”
Sophomore guard Kimbal Mackenzie, playing only a little more than an hour’s drive from his hometown of Oakville, Ontario, led all scorers with 23 points. Mackenzie hit 5 of 7 from 3-point range, with four of them coming in the second half. Junior center Nana Foulland was also terrific, recording 18 points on 7-for-10 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and three blocked shots.
Junior point guard Stephen Brown had 18 points, four assists, five steals and only one turnover against West Virginia’s relentless full-court pressure. Junior forward Zach Thomas also reached double figures with 13 points along with six rebounds.
The story coming into the game was how Bucknell would deal with that full-court press, which led to the Mountaineers’ nickname “Press Virginia.” WVU came into the game leading the nation in steals (10.4) and forced turnovers (20.4) per game, but the Bison handled the press well for most of the game.
Bucknell finished with 15 turnovers, leading to 16 West Virginia points. Not only did the Bison break the press most of the time, but they were also able to attack it effectively on the back end, resulting in a 17-2 advantage in fastbreak points.
Instead, the difference in the game proved to be on the glass, where the Mountaineers parlayed 17 offensive rebounds into 20 second-chance points. A number of those put-backs came down the stretch, as the Bison were trying to string together stops to make a final comeback.
“We dealt with their pressure pretty well for the most part,” said Davis. “It is so hard to replicate their length and quickness in practice, but we showed good poise. In the end where their size really hurt us was on the glass.”
Foulland scored seven of the team’s first nine points, and the Bison had a few small leads in the early going. But West Virginia hit eight straight shots in a 17-2 run that opened up a 27-12 advantage.
The Bison regrouped, with Mackenzie scoring seven straight Bucknell points in what became a 21-9 run. A tough layup in transition by Avi Toomer off a Mackenzie feed pulled the Bison within 36-33. That would be the team’s final points of the period, however, and WVU took a 42-33 lead into the locker room.
Elijah Macon finished a 3-point play on the first possession of the second half, building the margin back to 12. But the Bison would not go away. Mackenzie hit a trey out of the deep corner, Thomas followed with a layup, and Foulland finished a sweet dish from Brown for one of his three dunks in the game, cutting it to 45-40.
A few minutes later the Bison caught a bad break. After Foulland stuffed Nathan Adrian’s layup attempt, Daxter Miles picked off the outlet pass and fed Lamont West for a 3-pointer that made it an 11-point game at 52-41.
Brown answered with a short jumper after a steal of his own, and the margin would be in single digits for the last 16 minutes.
Twice Mackenzie knocked down triples to reduce the Bison deficit to three. The latter came at the 8:57 mark and made it a 63-60 game. At the other end, the Bison contested an Adrian shot in the lane, but he stuck back his own miss. After a missed front end of a 1-and-1, Esa Ahmed hit two free throws to make it 67-60, and the margin was at least five the rest of the way.
The backbreaker came right around the four-minute mark, when Mackenzie’s career-high fifth 3-pointer made it 73-68 but was immediately answered by a Javon Carter trey at the other end.
West Virginia scored its final 10 points of the night at the foul line to seal it.
Tarik Phillip (16 points) and West (15) sparked a 37-point day for the West Virginia bench. Ahmad also had 15 points, while Adrian tallied 12 points and 10 rebounds.
Bucknell’s 15 turnovers were the second-fewest of any non-Big 12 team against West Virginia this season. Only Virginia, with 14, handled the ball better. The Bison led in steals 8-7 and forced 13 WVU turnovers.
Bucknell shot 45.8 percent from the field, including 53.6 percent in a 47-point second half. After going 1-for-7 from the 3-point arc in the first half, the Bison hit 8 of 13 in the second to finish 9-for-20 on the day.
West Virginia shot 45.5 percent overall and 5-for-11 from long range. WVU outscored the Bison 23-21 at the foul line.
For Bucknell, the 26 wins are third-most in program history, trailing the 2012-13 team that won 28 and the 2005-06 squad that won 27. This was Bucknell’s seventh NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2013.
The Bison had won seven straight games coming in, including an 81-65 victory over Lehigh in the Patriot League championship game eight days earlier.
The contest marked the final career game for seniors John Azzinaro, D.J. MacLeay and Ben Oberfeld. The group graduates with 78 wins, three Patriot League regular-season titles and one NCAA Tournament appearance.