(Originally posted Wed. at 10:40 p.m., Links added at 7:19 a.m.)
The shots don't always fall. Not even for the top shooting team in the league.
That was the situation Bucknell found itself in during the first half Wednesday night at American.
Chris McNaughton, the Bison's 6-11 junior center, who ranks seventh in the nation in field goal percentage, missed 4 of the first 5 shots he put up, all good looks, all shots McNaughton, a 66 percent shooter, normally knocks down.
Kevin Bettencourt was 0-for-4 in the first half, Charles Lee 1-for-4.
With the team's top three scorers struggling like that, it was little surprise Bucknell shot only 37.5 percent from the field in the opening half. And with the team shooting under 40 percent, it was only a mild surprise that American took a 30-26 lead to the locker room at the half.
Even though the Bison had never won a Patriot League game in American's Bender Arena, they never panicked. Instead they fell back on what has been a strength of the program since Pat Flannery took the reins at his alma mater 12 seasons ago -- defense.
The result, a hard-fought 58-50 win over a stubborn American team and a 2-0 mark in the league after opening conference play with a pair of road games in places Bucknell has traditionally struggled.
Some folks will look at the way 4-11 American (0-2 in the league) hung with Bucknell to the end and see it as a negative for the Bison, who improved to 11-3 overall. Not Flannery.
"It was nice to get one down here," said Flannery, who had never won in Bender before. "We came out of here with a win . . . I'm tickled. It's a real good win on the road."
It had to be especially pleasing to Flannery that the Bison got it done the way he has always preached -- with defense.
After trailing by 4 at the break, the Bison shut down American in the second half, holding the Eagles to 6 field goals in the final 20 minutes. AU made only three buckets the first 16-and-a-half minutes of the half. Bucknell shot better after the break, hitting 11-of-21 (52.4 percent) in the second half. But make no mistake, it was their defense that produced the win.
"We talk about it year after year. Shots are not always going to fall. When shots are not falling, you have to turn it up on defense," said Lee, who finished with 12 points, the last two on a fine hustle play that put the Bison up by 9 with less than a minute to go and ended any comeback thoughts the Eagles might have harbored.
The play started when American's Jordan Nichols got an offensive rebound off a missed layup by Andre Ingram. Nichols tried to pass it back out to the perimeter to reset the offense, but the ball was deflected towards midcourt, where it appeared AU's freshman point guard Derrick Mercer would be the first to the ball. Lee, though, came seemingly out of nowhere to corral the loose ball, taking it in for an easy layup, sealing the win.
It was one of a series of big plays by the senior from nearby Gaithersburg, Md. down the stretch. With Bucknell up by only 3 points with just over 2 minutes left, Lee hit a tough fadeaway jumper from just inside the foul line to stretch the lead to 51-46. At the other end, he came up with a rebound in the middle of a crowd of white jerseys after Brian Gilmore missed an off balance runner, leading to an Abe Badmus layup and a 53-46 margin. On American's next possession, it was Lee who blocked Ingram's layup, leading to the Nichols rebound that turned into that turnover and Lee layup.
"The last two games, Charles has been our rock," Flannery said. "He did it again tonight. When we were struggling, he hit a couple big buckets."
Lee also spent the better part of the night so close to Ingram that they could have shared on jersey. Ingram, American's leading scorer, has struggled his entire career against the Bison. This game was no exception. The Eagles' all-league guard was 2-for-10 from the field, with one bucket 2:33 into the first half and the other with 2:28 left.
Lee also led the Bison with a game-high 9 rebounds.
McNaughton, who got on track in the second half, joined Lee in double figures with 13 points. Bettencourt also found his stroke after the intermission, scoring 12 of his game-high 14 in the second half.
Garrison Carr led American with 9 points, all on three-pointers.
The Bison will host Holy Cross Saturday in a key early conference season game. American will look for its first league win on the road at Colgate.