There were no complex explanations for American’s first loss at home all season, a setback that cost the Eagles a shot at a share of a conference title.
Any of the 1,653 at Bender Arena could tell two things and two things alone cost American in its 55-50 loss to Bucknell on Thursday.
One was yielding three consecutive 3-pointers to break open a taut game in its closing stages. That happens from time to time.
The other was allowing 26 points and 14 rebounds to the Bison’s Mike Muscala. That happens just about every time the Eagles see the Bucknell big man.
“I don’t think we could have played any harder,” American coach Jeff Jones said. “I think we were prepared and anticipated some of the things that they did. In the end, Muscala was too good and they got the extra opportunities and they made big shots. I really can’t fault our defense. Sometimes, the other team is just better.”
That was the sobering reality delivered as the Eagles (18-10, 9-4 Patriot) squandered a chance to move into a three-way tie with the Bison (21-8, 11-2) and Lehigh atop the Patriot League standings.
Bryan Cohen was a good enough defender to fluster American’s Charles Hinkle (season-low three points).
Cohen, Bryson Johnson and Cameron Ayers were good enough to hit a series of 3-pointers to turn a 41-40 Bucknell lead into a 50-40 edge.
Then there was Muscala, the reigning conference player of the year who would be a viable All-America selection if he saw the Eagles every day. In four games against American in the last two seasons, Muscala is averaging 25.3 points and 11.5 rebounds.
Eagles center Tony Wroblicky gave it a solid shot against the skilled big man, collecting 11 points and eight rebounds in 27 minutes while trying to slow down Muscala.
In the end, Wroblicky was exhausted despite a feisty outing and Muscala still closed out the Eagles with a crucial block and a pair of free throws with 15.2 seconds left to extinguish any realistic chance of an American comeback.
“He just makes you work. …,” said Jones, whose team will earn the No. 3 seed in the Patriot tournament with a defeat of Lafayette on Saturday. “Muscala just wore us down. He was clearly the difference in the game.”
And still, the Eagles weren’t finished until the closing stages. After building an early 10-point lead, American found itself up 26-24 at the break. For a stretch of 12 minutes in the second half, the game never strayed beyond a two-point lead for either team.
Then came one three. And another. And another. Offensive rebounds helped Bucknell, but so did the relief of finally enjoying a cushion.
“When they hit shots like that, it just makes us change our defensive strategy,” guard Troy Brewer said.
Yet there was only so much American could do. It had done what it wanted most of the night, shortening the game and combining to match Muscala play for play for 35 minutes.
It wasn’t enough. Sometimes, that’s just the way it is.
“Throughout the season, our whole game plan is grind it out,” Hinkle said. “That’s kind of how the game was today. It was a low-scoring game, and they just hit big shots, especially in the second half.”
—- Patrick Stevens