Courtesy of BucknellBison.com
DETROIT — Zach Thomas scored 27 points and fellow senior Stephen Brown added 20, but Michigan State’s trio of Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston proved to be too much as the third-seeded Spartans beat the 14th-seeded Bison, 82-78, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Little Caesar’s Arena.
Thomas scored 20 points in the first half and added seven in the second before fouling out. His 27 points came in 29 minutes on the floor and were the most ever by a Bucknell player in an NCAA Tournament game. Kimbal Mackenzie scored 10 points to join Thomas and Brown in double figures while Nana Foulland and Nate Sestina added seven points apiece.
The senior class of Brown, Thomas and Foulland will go down as one of the best in Bison basketball history. The trio will graduate with 4,801 points, 87 wins, four Patriot League regular-season championships, two Patriot League Tournament titles, two NCAA Tournament appearances and two NIT bids.
“I thought our guys came out, competed, never backed down, never stopped playing,” said head coach Nathan Davis. “That’s why we were in the position we were in to be here in the first place. Give our guys a lot of credit for the way they played, the poise we played with. But at the same time, give Michigan State a lot of credit. I thought they played well. Every game you go into, you say if you’re going to get beat, you want the other team to just play better than you did. And I think that was certainly the case today. I don’t think our guys have anything to hang their heads over.”
Bridges was a force for Michigan State, finishing with 29 points on 12-of-22 shooting and nine rebounds. He had 19 of those points in the second half, including seven straight in one stretch to help the Spartans build a 15-point lead. Langford hurt the Bison with his mid-range jump shots and scored 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting, while Winston recorded a double-double with 11 points and 10 assists.
Bucknell, which earned a bid to the NCAA Tournament for a second straight season and eighth time overall, finished the season 25-10. Michigan State improved to 30-4 and will play the winner of Syracuse and TCU in the next round.
“Usually I enjoy watching Michigan State play, but this week it wasn’t a whole lot of fun,” said Davis. “In the time I’ve been coaching, they are as good as anyone I’ve seen.”
Thomas was the story in the first half. The Patriot League Player of the Year found buckets everywhere. He hit all three of his 3-point attempts, including one from about 30 feet, he scored in the lane and went 5-for-6 from the foul line.
After Langford’s 3-pointer gave Michigan State a 23-12 lead, Thomas went on his own personal 7-0 run to get the Bison back in it. He hit a fadeaway in the paint, hit two free throws after being fouled on a drive, and then he banked in a shot from just in front of the NCAA logo that stretched across midcourt.
Not long after, Brown made a 3-pointer and Jimmy Sotos fed Ben Robertson for a fastbreak layup. After a Langford 16-footer, Thomas split a pair at the foul line and then swished another deep trey to cap a 16-4 run and give Bucknell a 28-27 lead.
Michigan State scored seven straight to surge back in front before Mackenzie threw a perfect lob to Foulland for an alley-oop jam. Two Brown free throws made it a 41-40 game with 50 seconds to go, but Bridges closed out the first-half scoring with a 3-point play to make it a 44-40 Spartans lead at the break.
Brown started the second half with a layup, but the Bison missed their next nine shots as Michigan State started to pull away. Three straight layups forced a Bucknell timeout, and after three Thomas free throws, the Spartans scored 11 of the next 13 points to go up 63-48.
Thomas picked up his fourth foul on a hand check during that run, but quickly returned to the floor and hit a 10-footer for his 27th point of the night. But with 6:06 to go, Thomas was assessed a technical foul while backpedaling down the court on defense. Langford received a technical moments later as the game turned a bit chippy.
The Spartans went up by as many as 18 points at 72-54 on two Bridges free throws with 4:20 left, but the Bison made it a game with a late 3-point shooting barrage. They hit six treys in the final 3:18, three of them by Brown, and got back within striking distance. Bucknell gave a few fouls, but the Spartans went 7-for-8 at the line in the last 33 seconds.
Bucknell finished the game 11-for-20 from 3-point range and shot 41.8 percent overall. The Bison went 21-for-28 from the foul line and had 13 assists with only eight turnovers. Mackenzie had a season-high six assists. Michigan State finished with a 40-28 rebounding edge, but the Bison had a 7-6 edge in second-chance points. Sestina and Jimmy Sotos led Bucknell with seven rebounds apiece.
Foulland (1,754), Thomas (1,738) and Brown (1,309) will graduate ranked fourth, fifth and 19th on Bucknell’s all-time scoring list. Thomas finished the season with a school-record 716 points, and he was the first in team history to record 700 points in a season. Thomas finishes the campaign averaging 20.5 points per game, making him the eighth player in Bucknell history to score 20 ppg or better, and the first since Chris Simpson in 1993-94.
Brown, who scored nine points in the last 14 seconds of the game, hit 20 for the 10th time this season. Thomas scored 20 or more for the 18th time, extending his team record.