The celebration bubbled up within Bucknell’s Sojka Pavilion late Wednesday night, the Bison’s orange-clad fans splashing onto the court to rejoice with the players after an 81-65 victory over Lehigh in the Patriot League championship game.
Suddenly Zach Thomas, BU’s junior forward, emerged from the joyous mob. Game ball still in hand, he stopped near the foul line at one end of the floor and bent over at the waist.
“All of the emotions just came through,” he said later, “and I just needed a moment for myself to collect my thoughts. It was just unreal.”
He was in fact allowed only a moment; well-wishers immediately flocked to him. The madness enveloped him, as indeed it envelops everyone at this time of year.
The Bison (26-8), back in the NCAA Tournament for the seventh time in program history (and the first time since 2013), open against No. 4 seed West Virginia (26-8) on Thursday in Buffalo, N.Y. And certainly their fans are well aware of the month’s mood swings. A dozen years ago they saw their team take down Kansas in the tournament and Arkansas the year after that.
But the two years prior to this one were maddening in a different way.
Twice BU won the PL regular-season championship. Twice the Bison owned home-court advantage in the conference tournament. And twice lower-seeded opponents — Lafayette in the 2015 semifinals, Holy Cross in the ’16 quarterfinals — knocked them off en route to the Big Dance themselves.
The second of those losses had been particularly tough to stomach, Thomas said. The Crusaders had not won a road game during the regular season, but the victory over the Bison, in double overtime, was the second of four straight they captured away from home in the postseason.
“It was awful last year to get upset in the first round at home,” he said, adding that it took “a couple days” to put it aside.
But now all that is behind him, and them. Now the Bison are fully immersed in the madness.
Lehigh had also lost at home to Holy Cross in last year’s PL tournament — in the championship game, no less. But this year the Mountain Hawks brought to Lewisburg an explosive team led by center Tim Kempton.
The 6-10 senior is just the second player in PL history to accumulate over 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds, and he was named conference Player of the Year as a sophomore and junior.
But not this season. This season that honor when to Bucknell junior center Nana Foulland, who was also named Defensive Player of the Year.
First time downcourt on Wednesday, Kempton coaxed in a short jumper, with the help of a friendly rim. Second time down, Foulland blocked his shot, but Kempton recovered and scored.
So it was on. Bucknell nudged in front, then Lehigh. Then the Bison again, by six. Then Lehigh again, by five.
With 24.3 seconds left in the first half and Lehigh up 34-32, BU coach Nathan Davis called timeout and drew up a beautiful play. Thomas, the team’s leading scorer this season, ran to the right block as a teammate held the ball on the wing.
The Hawks’ defense immediately tilted in Thomas’ direction. And as it did so, freshman guard Avi Toomer — he of the 3.2 point-per-game average — floated out to the top of the circle, beyond the arc.
He took the pass and nailed the shot, the only one he made all game long, with four seconds remaining.
Bucknell never trailed again.
Eighteen seconds into the second half, Foulland converted a three-point play. Then Thomas added a stick-back, set up Foulland for a dunk and dropped in a layup. And sophomore guard Kimbal McKenzie nailed a 3-pointer, capping a 15-0 flurry and putting the Bison up 47-34.
They would stretch it out to 19 and cruise home. McKenzie finished with 18 points. Foulland and Thomas added 17 each, and Thomas, named tournament MVP, contributed nine rebounds and seven assists as well.
He would later recall a moment early in the second half when he was about to inbound the ball and made eye contact with Foulland.
“He looked back at me and no words were exchanged,” Thomas said. “But we knew it was time to go."
Especially since he had been “passive” — his word — in the first half, squeezing off a single shot in the game’s first 12:12 and finishing the half with seven points and two boards.
He picked it up. Everybody did. And while Kempton collected 22 points and 17 rebounds, Foulland defended him well, and almost always by himself. Eight of Kempton’s points came in the last five minutes, when the matter was largely decided.
Afterward he sat red-eyed in the interview room with guard Austin Price, a fellow senior, and coach Brett Reed.
“It’s unfortunate that what’s defining us is not winning,” Kempton said. “Austin and I are as competitive as anyone you can find. For us to sit here and not have a championship under our belts hurts me more than I can explain.”
Reed usually speaks precisely, as befits a man who owns a doctorate in instructional technology. But when he was asked about his seniors, his voice caught.
“I’m heart-broken,” he said. “It’s hard for me to express the emotions that go into a loss like this. I wanted this so badly for them. … All I can say is it really hurts.”
Not long after Thomas entered the interview room wearing a backwards baseball cap and carrying the championship trophy. He too is a scholar, majoring in biomedical engineering.
“It’s crazy,” he said of his academic pursuits. “It’s so crazy. I’ve got professors that help me out. They know my schedule’s crazy, so they help me out when I need help. I’ve learned how to manage my time, after my freshman year. Once you manage your time it makes it a little bit more doable.”
Studying, however, was the last thing on his mind at that particular moment.
“Not tonight,” he said.
Not with the madness setting in.