Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
For the first time ever, the top seed in the Patriot League tournament's 25-year history will not be playing in the finals.
And it's because for just the second time ever, Lafayette won at Bucknell.
The Leopards overcame a 10-point, second-half deficit to hold off the Bison 80-74 at Sojka Pavilion, moving on to the Patriot League championship game for the first time since 2013.
Sophomore point guard Nick Lindner led the way with 23 points and seven assists against just one turnover, playing one of the best games of his still-young career.
Now, he and his team are on the doorstep of the NCAA Tournament.
"It's a dream come true," he said.
The Germantown Academy product was involved in several key plays down the stretch, but had plenty of help from his teammates.
Senior forward Dan Trist added 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, senior sharpshooter Joey Ptasinski made both of his 3-point attempts and 6-of-7 overall for his 18 points, and junior Bryce Scott had 11 as the fourth Leopard in double figures.
The final starter, senior Seth Hinrichs, had seven points as Fran O'Hanlon's starting five scored every single point in the win.
Winning at Sojka has been difficult for any team in the Patriot League of late, but Lafayette had especially struggled on the road there. The Leopards' season had ended at the hands of the Bison in that very building in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 playoffs, including that championship game in the final of those years.
"I got texts from some of my guess that had been through it, lost in this game a couple of years ago, they ended our season here," O'Hanlon said. "We've lost here because they had really good basketball teams, it's no secret. They're good, they have a great coach, but it feels awesome to win this game."
It looked like that would be extended to four times in five years early in the second, when Chris Hass' jumper put Bucknell up 43-33 with 17:35 to play.
But Lafayette (19-12) responded with a 14-1 run to re-take the lead, an advantage they would give up only briefly--with 9:24 remaining, on a Ryan Frazier jumper that made it 48-47 in favor of the home team.
It was a tough corner 3-pointer from Ptasinski that sparked the run, and the turnaround.
"We were in danger there of them just running away with it," O'Hanlon said on the phone. "I thought that was a huge shot, gave us some momentum, and then we went on from there."
The Leopards then scored at least one point on their final 16 possessions of the game, with four different players doing all the scoring over that nine-minute span.
Key 3-pointers by Ptasinski (with 5:25 remaining) and Lindner (with 4:19 left) helped Lafayette stay afloat, and then foul shooting down the stretch sealed the win.
"We stayed composed, we stick to the plan and we think it's a good one and we trust in each other," Lindner said. "That's what happens when you have a bunch of experienced guys. We just played hard and fought."
As a team, the Leopards were 21-of-24 (87.5 percent) from the line, including 9-of-10 in the final three minutes.
Frazier finished with 22 to points to pace Bucknell, the conference's regular-season champions, who will be continuing its season in the National Invitation Tournament. Hass, a junior guard, had 19, while freshman forward Zach Thomas had 15 for the Bison (19-14).
Lafayette will host No. 6 American on Wednesday for the Patriot League championship, the first time since the Leopards won the tournament in 2000 that it's been hosted on their home court.
In two previous meetings this season, the Eagles topped the Leopards 78-76 up at Lafayette and 88-77 down in Washington, D.C.
Just two weeks ago, O'Hanlon was worried about his team avoiding a bottom-four seed in the Patriot League tournament. Now, the No. 4 seed in the league will be the home team with a big advantage as an NCAA Tournament berth is on the line.
"The way this league has been...when we finished fourth and we hosted the first game, it's not a given that anybody's going to [get to the final]," O'Hanlon said. "It will be tremendous to the school and to our guys to host it. We haven't had a lot of success against American here, they beat us up pretty good the last two times."