Bucknell falls to Fairfield, 60-58, in home opener

Courtesy of BucknellBison.com

LEWISBURG, Pa – Bucknell erased a double-digit deficit for the second time in as many games to start the season, but this time the shorthanded Bison just could not get over the hump. Moments after Kimbal Mackenzie tied the game with a driving layup, Fairfield’s Neftali Alvarez answered with a layup at the other end with three seconds remaining to send the Stags to a 60-58 win, spoiling Bucknell’s home opener. Jimmy Sotos nearly won it with a running 3-point try from 30 feet out, but his bank shot rimmed out at the buzzer.

The Bison (1-1) trailed by as many as 14 points in the first half and by 10 at intermission after the Stags (1-1) outshot Bucknell 61 percent to 32 percent in the opening 20 minutes. The Bison locked down defensively in the second half, holding Fairfield to 6-for-26 shooting (.231), but the hosts came away empty numerous times in a one-possession game before finally tying it on Mackenzie’s drive with nine seconds to go. Bucknell had just stolen the ball from the shifty Alvarez on the previous possession, setting up the Mackenzie shot, but Alvarez had the answer this time and finish with a game-high 16 points.

Mackenzie led Bucknell with 15 points to go with five assists, six rebounds, and three drawn charges. Paul Newman, a sophomore center making his first career start in place of the injured Nate Sestina, tallied 12 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots, and Avi Toomer also hit double figures with 10 points along with eight rebounds. Sestina missed the game after posting 15 points and 16 rebounds in an opening-night overtime win over St. Bonaventure on Wednesday. Reserves Nate Jones and John Meeks also sat out with injuries for the second straight game.

“Like we always do, our guys kept fighting,” said head coach Nathan Davis. “Give them credit for getting back in the game. We made enough mistakes where one shot can beat you, and that’s what happened tonight. I thought we came out on our heels a little bit and let them get comfortable. We defended much better in the second half, but it was an uphill climb.”

The Bison struggled with their shot all night, shooting 20-for-58 (.345) from the field, 5-for-21 (.238) from three, and 13-for-22 (.591) at the free throw line. Meanwhile Fairfield went 14-for-17 (.824) at the foul line and 6-for-16 (.375) from the arc.

Bucknell endured an eight-minute scoreless drought in the first half, while Fairfield scored 12 straight points to go up 17-4 at the 10-minute mark. The Stags led by as many as 15 at 34-19 after Landon Taliaferro drained a deep 3-pointer with 2:22 remaining in the half. The Bison did close within 10 with a 7-2 run to end the half. Toomer made a 3-pointer, Jimmy Sotos had a runner in the lane, and Mackenzie made two free throws with four seconds remaining after Fairfield was called for one of the newly emphasized “hook and hold” flagrant fouls.

Another floater from Sotos and two Bruce Moore free throws cut it to 38-32 early in the second half, and the large crowd really came to life when Ben Robertson finished an alley-oop dunk from Kimbal Mackenzie in transition, making it a three-point game at 42-39 with 13:16 to go. Toomer’s trey with 10:33 left made it a two-point game at 47-45, but Alvarez answered with a step-back 3-pointer, and after a flurry of Bucknell misses around the rim on one possession, Taliaferro hit a running jumper to push the margin back to seven.

Bucknell continued it’s strong defense, though, and held the Stags to just a pair of free throws over the nex four minutes. Newman cut it to one at 54-53 with two free throws with 5:54 to go, and his layup with 2:37 left made it 58-56 with 2:37 left. The game then got frantic in the final two minutes. The Bison had a possession to tie but turned the ball over, but then they forced a shot-clock violation at the other end. Mackenzie was off the mark with a shot but made up for it by drawing his third charge of the night, thwarting a potential fastbreak layup. Newman was called for an offensive foul the other way, but then with 18 seconds left Newman stepped in to double team Alvarez, poked the ball away and dove on the floor for the loose ball before calling a timeout.

The Bison went to Mackenzie, who was coming off a 28-point game against St. Bonaventure, and he blew by two defenders for the tying layup. After a timeout, Alvarez brought the ball up the court, used a screen to get a step of separation, and then spun between two Bucknell players to get to the rim.

Bucknell blocked nine shots and outrebounded Fairfield 41-27, with 17 of the rebounds coming at the offensive end. However the Bison could only flip those 17 offensive boards into eight second-chance points as they saw numerous shots at the rim fall away. Robertson gave Bucknell a big spark off the bench with eight points and seven rebounds in 20 minutes.

In addition to Alvarez’s 16 points, Fairfield also received 12 from Taliaferro and 10 off the bench from Jesus Cruz.

Bucknell saw a couple of lengthy streaks come to an end. The Bison had won 10 straight home games and nine straight home openers. Before the game, Bucknell’s 2018 Patriot League championship and NCAA Tournament banners were unveiled.

The Bison host another Metro Atlantic Athletic Association team on Tuesday when Canisius visits Sojka Pavilion. The Golden Griffins were picked second in the MAAC preseason poll.

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