Bucknell fans treated to rare high-major treat
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- How did the "Sojka Psychos" get that way? It's probably from basketball deprivation.
Those rabid orange-clad Bucknell students haven't had much chance to enjoy their team's recent shocking upsets firsthand. None of them happened in the cozy confines of Gary A. Sojka Pavilion. Each of the Bison's recent wins over power-conference opponents happened miles away from home, in such faraway locales as Pittsburgh, Oklahoma City, Syracuse and Chicago.
Teams in RPI-challenged conferences like the Patriot League know all about being road warriors. Most spend their Novembers and Decembers hitting the highways in search of guarantee checks, as most ACC and Big East coaches have nothing to gain by scheduling home-and-home series with them. League winners usually are rewarded with round-trip tickets to oblivion by the selection committee, their seasons softly expiring thousands of miles from home with them as overmatched 13- or 14-seeds.
But there's nothing in the conventional wisdom to explain the story of Bucknell, a team that has managed to ensnare college basketball's heavyweights in a web of hard-nosed basketball. Rarer still is the opportunity to face one of the top four teams in the country in your own building. On a Tuesday night in December, thanks to a two-for-one scheduling arrangement made two summers ago with Villanova, tiny Lewisburg became "Mystery, Pennsylvania."
"[Bucknell coach] Pat Flannery played on my heartstrings to get me to do this," said former Bison shooting guard and current Villanova coach Jay Wright. "He said, 'Oh, Jay, it'd be so nice for you to come back.' He didn't mention that before I came back, he'd knock off, like, five nationally ranked teams."
And Wright's old town was more than ready to spoil his return. The fact that Bucknell's storybook victories had happened at the most inopportune times has only increased the hunger. The win at Pittsburgh happened over New Year's break. The shocking NCAA Tournament victory over Kansas? Spring break. The Syracuse upset occurred at the start of Thanksgiving weekend -- when their 2005-06 home opener rolled around four days later, the Psychos were too busy at home getting their L-tryptophan on to hail the return of their conquering heroes properly.
The 'Nova game had been sold out for months, and the buzz steadily increased as the day grew closer. All Tuesday morning, students draped the usually quiet campus in orange and blue streamers and "Go Bison" signs. When noon struck, they set up a makeshift basketball village ("Flanneryville") in the packed snow outside the arena, chanting for the guards to let them in.
At 5 p.m. sharp, the Bucknell students spilled into the diamond-shaped bowl, painting the two-year-old arena a deeper and richer shade of orange than the state of Illinois has ever seen. When Villanova marched onto the floor for warm-ups, an enormous sign appeared in the west bleachers, a blown-up mug shot of a young man who resembled a young and smiling Ralph Macchio, circa "The Karate Kid." Underneath was the scrawled inscription, "Jay Wright, 1982."
"Page 111 of our media guide, man," explained a shirtless, blue-colored student with an orange "I" on his chest. "You like the hair?"
"Yeah, I saw that," Wright said later about the picture, smiling. "I told them before the game, 'Hey man, I'm one of you! I went here!'"
But no slack was cut. The sound that greeted the Bison was a thick and steady series of call-and-response chants of "Ray!" (as in Allan) and "Bucknell!" The band, despite its acoustically advantageous position in the southeast corner of the bandbox, was no match for the crowd it was there to entertain.
All the while, the Nova Nation members sat patiently, sandwiched into their tiny pie-piece sliver behind the visitors' bench. When the game started, their Wildcats made every effort to run the Bison off their own floor, to even the inequity in overall numbers. Their guards stroked 3 after 3, pressing on every defensive possession. After an early 16-0 run, the visitors led 26-9.
Spurred on by its crowd, their vocal cords strained by seven hours of pregame preparation, the home team joined the battle -- Bucknell answered with a 9-0 run of their own.
But then, Villanova stepped on the gas for the second time. After another barrage of long makes, the Wildcats' lead was back up to 18. This call, too, was answered. Burly German Chris McNaughton found open layup after open layup, just as he had during the Kansas game, and the Bison chipped away at the lead again. With 16 minutes left in regulation, on McNaughton's 19th and 20th points, the Villanova lead had been cut to three.
Sojka Pavilion erupted into a solid box of contained white noise, the deafening static like that between stations, amplified four-thousandfold. Perhaps, finally, the faithful would get to see a miracle with their very own eyes.
But just 21 clock-ticks later, another 3-pointer courtesy of Nova's Allan Ray. That third haymaker, that was the knockout punch the home team could not recover from. Villanova presented a challenge Bucknell had yet to face -- a phalanx of all-world guards who countered old-school fundamentals with broadband speed. In the end, it would be too much for the Orange and Blue to claw back three times.
As the home team left the floor, short by 19 points, the Sojka Psychos gave their beloved Bison a prolonged standing ovation -- a thanks for all the thrills they've provided over the past year in their ascension to the national stage, a promise that they'd be back.
It was a scene that reminded Wright's old college coach a little bit of the good old days, when the Breakin' Bison would thrill tiny Davis Gym.
"We had packed houses every night," recalled Charlie Woollum, who helmed the Bison for 19 years, leading them to 318 wins and two NCAA Tournaments. "We had some good teams back then, too. But this night, this atmosphere, is very special for Bucknell basketball. I'm very proud of the school and its fans."
In the tunnels, the current Bucknell coach was still smarting from the loss.
"Sometimes you just want something so badly," a dejected Flannery said. "We just wanted so much to win in front of these fans, give them this win for all the support they've given us. I wish I could thank each one of them."
Kyle Whelliston is the founder of midmajority.com and is a regular contributor for ESPN.com. Starting in mid-December, Kyle will be writing on mid-major basketball five days a week on ESPN.com.