LEWISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Zach Thomas waved his arms in the air as he walked toward the baseline and exhorted the rowdy Bucknell students to cheer even louder.
Nana Foulland yanked him back to the huddle. The Bison still had 68 anticlimactic seconds to wait before the students would burst toward them for a court-storming celebration that ignited a Patriot League party.
Kimbal Mackenzie scored 18 points to help send Bucknell into the NCAA Tournament with an 81-65 victory over Lehigh in the conference championship game Wednesday night.
The Bison (26-8) are back in the tournament for the first time since 2013 and seem ready to shake up the brackets one more time. Bucknell beat Kansas in 2005 and Arkansas in 2006 to earn a reputation as March upset masters.
Let the scouting reports on basketball's big boys wait until after Sunday's field is announced.
"Until then, I'm going to enjoy this," coach Nathan Davis said. "I'm not going to worry about it a whole lot."
Bucknell was knocked out of the NCAA Tournament in the first game each of the last two trips. But Foulland and Thomas, who had 17 points and nine rebounds, had the electric home crowd ready to taste the tournament from the opening tip.
The crowd of 4,254, sixth largest in Sojka history, stormed the court and mobbed the players to set off a March celebration. Bucknell students danced and snapped selfies on the court as the public address announcer urged them to head back to the bleachers for the traditional cutting of the nets.
Bucknell opened the second half on a 12-0 run that turned Sojka Pavilion into zoo, complete with a dancing Bison (mascot) and a gyrating shark. The Mountain Hawks (20-12) were the endangered species, and lost in the Patriot League Tournament championship game for the second straight season.
"We had great individual careers but we never made it to the Tournament. That hurts," senior guard Austin Price said.
While so many conference tournament games this week were played in half-empty arenas in major cities, Bucknell's 4,000-seat Sojka rocked from the moment the doors opened to hundreds of students lined up outside all the way to the postgame madness on the court.
The two schools are separated by 125 miles, and the student sections engaged in dueling insults and sarcastic signs that gave this championship game a true big-game flavor.
Lehigh won both games against Bucknell during the regular season and had counted on 3-point shooting (39 percent; 23rd nationally) to pull off the road upset. The Mountain Hawks hit just two 3s in the first half and a 30-25 lead was more mirage than a needed spark toward snipping the nets.
Foulland, the Patriot League player of the year and defensive player of the year, was in foul trouble in the first half and sat out the last 4 minutes. The Bison still scored on their next three possessions when he was benched and Avi Toomer made a 3 a tick before the horn for a 35-35 halftime lead.
Bucknell was just getting started.
The top-seeded Bison gave the frenzied, orange-dressed crowd a reason to go wild on a steal from Foulland that led to an easy bucket and he quickly added his own monster dunk. Mackenzie buried a corner 3 that capped a 12-0 run to open the second half.
"It makes it feel like they can never come back," Thomas said.
The Bison, who won the Patriot League title outright for the third straight season and sixth time in the last seven years, got a three-point play from Mackenzie late in the game that shook off a late Lehigh push. The championship celebration was on deck.
Tim Kempton had 22 points and 17 rebounds for Lehigh.
Bucknell has won six straight games and has not lost consecutive games all season. The Bison entered 24th in the country in field-goal percentage (48.1) and could prove to be a tough out in the tournament.
The Mountain Hawks had won six straight games. Former Lehigh great and Portland Trail Blazers star CJ. McCollum rooted on the Mountain Hawks on Twitter ("Come on fellas").
The Mountain Hawks missed 10 of 14 3s and made only 7 of 15 free throws. Both ugly numbers were well off their season averages.
Bucknell will likely earn a double-digit seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Lehigh has not made the NCAAs since 2012, when it knocked off Duke, and could settle for an invitation to one of the minor March postseason tournaments.
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