Bench play key as Bucknell opens season with 68-64 win at Fairfield

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BRIDGEPORT, Conn.John Meeks scored a career-high 19 points to lead a huge effort from the Bucknell bench, and the Bison opened the 2019-20 season with a 68-64 victory over Fairfield at Webster Bank Arena on Tuesday night. Bruce Moore added 15 points, Walter Ellis scored 11, and Kahliel Spear had 10 points and nine rebounds for the Bison, who had to hold on down the stretch after building a 15-point second-half lead.

All told, the Bison reserves accounted for 40 points and 17 rebounds, and they hit seven of the team’s 10 3-pointers. Bucknell won its season opener on the road for the second straight year and are now 81-44 in 125 all-time lidlifters.

“I thought we showed a lot of growth from the two scrimmages,” said head coach Nathan Davis, who collected his 90th win as Bucknell’s head coach. “It’s a process. We have a lot of work to do, but that should be the case at this time of year. To go on the road and win a Division I basketball game is a great accomplishment. We showed our versatility tonight, and now we need to get back to work and get ready for a very good Vermont team on Sunday.”

After Fairfield scored 13 straight points to cut a 64-49 deficit to 64-62, sophomores Ellis and Andrew Funk knocked down four straight critical free throws in the final 13 seconds to preserve the win.

After a slow start to the second half, the Bison had a tremendous stretch to build that 15-point cushion. After the Bison managed only a pair of Moore free throws in the first five minutes of the half, Ellis was one of the catalysts in the surge. He grabbed a couple of tough rebounds in traffic, then knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to give Bucknell a 43-37 lead.

Later it was a 50-45 game when the Bison hit the Stags with nine straight points in about 90 seconds. Funk beat the shot clock with a right-wing three, then Funk pushed the ball in transition and dished to Spear for a layup plus a foul. After another stop, Meeks drained a trey for a 59-45 lead.

Ellis hit his third triple of the half to give Bucknell its largest lead of 15 points at 62-47, and that was still the margin after Moore’s free throws with 4:27 to go. Fairfield still had a major run in them, however.

Landon Taliaferro’s 3-pointer – one of only two on the night for the Stags – ignited a 13-0 run that stunningly turned it into a one-possession game. Jesus Cruz scored eight of those points, and his spinning layup with 30 seconds to go made it a 64-62 game.

Fairfield waited until 12.9 seconds remained before fouling Ellis, and he calmly made both ends of a 1-and-1 to push the margin to four. Taj Benning scored on a put-back with four ticks left, but then Funk iced it with two more free throws with 2.2 to go.

Ellis and Funk capped off a strong night at the line for the Bison, who finished 14-for-17. Bucknell shot 40 percent overall from the field but were better from the newly extended 3-point arc. The Bison hit 10 of 23 from downtown (.435), with Meeks and Ellis both going 3-for-4.

Meeks’ previous career high was 14 points in last year’s Patriot League Tournament game against Holy Cross, and he matched that total in the first half alone.

Bucknell got out to a 1-for-8 shooting start, with a number of the misses coming from close range, and trailed 8-2 after five minutes. But Meeks came off the bench and knocked down a deep three before driving hard to the rim for a dunk while drawing a foul.

The Bison took their first lead at 13-12 on a Jimmy Sotos 3-pointer. There would be seven ties and four lead changes over the rest of the half, with Bucknell drawing even at 33-33 at the break on a well-executed inbounds lob from Sotos to Spear at the buzzer.

With starting center Paul Newman in foul trouble for much of the night, Spear was terrific in 20 minutes off the bench. He knocked down a first-half 3-pointer, and his 10 points and nine boards were both personal bests.

Funk and senior Ben Robertson both made their first career starts, with Robertson stepping in for the injured Avi Toomer.

Defensively, Bucknell held Fairfield to 40.7 percent shooting, including a 2-for-12 showing from the arc. The Bison also blocked five shots, although the Stags did score 38 points in the paint, many coming from their big backcourt combo of Cruz (24 points), Taliaferro (17) and Benning (12).

The Bison host Vermont in the 2019-20 home opener on Sunday at 2 p.m.

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