Ian and I came once again to the Hart Center in Worcester, Mass., on top of the hill where it always feels four or five degrees colder than the rest of the city. We walked past the statue of Bob Cousy to see Holy Cross host Bucknell. Ian limped slightly (and sometimes tragically), having fallen that morning while he and I played one on one in the driveway.
We Holy Cross fans didn't quite know what to expect. A three-game winning streak suggested that perhaps the Crusaders were finally fulfilling preseason expectations. But a win over Bucknell? The Bison were coming off their first league loss, a squeaker with Lehigh. They would be primed. And the score of the first Holy Cross-Bucknell game four weeks ago was 74-41.
And after Mike Muscala, the reigning player of the year in the Patriot League, scored first on an easy left-handed post move, Crusader fans looked at each other: uh-oh. We knew that a strategy to beat the Bison might be to give Muscala his and shut down everyone else, but this looked a little easy.
However, Justin Burrell, Holy Cross's freshman point guard, answered with a three-pointer from the wing and then another from straightaway. Eric Obeysekere entered the game and blocked Muscala's next attempt, and suddenly Holy Cross was off to the races on a run of 17 unanswered points. During the stretch, the Crusaders gave up only one offensive rebound to the bigger and stronger Bison. And Bucknell looked to have left their transition legs on the bus, as Mike Cavatiao and Jordan Stevens beat the Bison defenders down the floor to find good shots.
Holy Cross led 17-2. Along the Bucknell sideline at the under-12 timeout, the look on coach Dave Paulsen's face showed that everything he could have feared was happening.
But for the next several minutes, both teams produced empty trips on offense. The full house in the Hart Center was quiet. With shock? Nerves? I looked up with six minutes to go in the half and whispered to Ian: "If Holy Cross can get hot again, we might be able to end it here." Of course, it would only take a small Bucknell run to knock down enough of the lead to make Holy Cross's dazzling 17-point run for naught. Neither team surged. And despite the ridiculous-looking halftime score, 28-10, the game felt up for grabs.
We made a break for the concession stand for fried dough and popcorn. The cashier's eyes went wide when we told him the score. He counted our change and slammed the cash drawer shut. "18 is not enough," he said.
Bucknell came out in the second half ready to grind. The Bison pounded the offensive boards and ran hard back to the defensive end. Bryan Cohen, the Bison captain, made two jump shots and blanketed Holy Cross' leading scorer Devin Brown on defense. Brown would never be a factor. And while Holy Cross's half-court sets did not produce shots for Brown or anybody else, Bucknell guards Bryson Johnson and Cameron Ayers found holes in the Crusaders' man-to-man. In five minutes, Bucknell cut the Holy Cross lead in half.
The basketball averages were coming back into balance. Or, what seemed more likely to the anxious Crusader winter homecoming flock, Holy Cross was undergoing its most recent nervous breakdown in a season of sanitarium-inducing efforts.
This much was clear: in the low post, Muscala had his way.
Muscala looks as unassuming as a 6-foot-11 human being can. During the pregame shootaround, Ian had tried to locate him. But with his warm-up top snapped to his throat and his shoulders slightly hunched, Muscala was somehow easy to miss. During the game, he is unmistakable. When he receives a pass on the block, he holds the ball under his chin with his feet and his elbows wide. He can turn equally well to his left or his right to create a shot. This is the move that fathers, especially those who grew up watching Kevin McHale, try to teach their sons on blacktopped driveways.
Muscala worked his way through the young Crusader bangers, fouling out first junior Phil Beans and then freshman Taylor Abt. Holy Cross fans were furious with the officiating. "Stop protecting Muscala!" screeched one during the under-12 timeout.
But the Crusaders did not fold. Eric Obeysekere -- providing the most effective defense on Muscala by rotating off his own man when the Bucknell big man turned to the hoop -- blocked a shot, igniting a fast break which Burrell finished with a behind-the-back pass to Jordan Stevens for a dunk. Ian did a little dance. Holy Cross led 42-27.
A slashing layup by Ayers and a Muscala offensive rebound and dunk made it 44-35 with 4:45 left.
Holy Cross ran the shot clock down on each of its possessions. Burrell, the smallest player on either roster at 5-foot-9, backed the ball out and made his best A.A.U.-inspired moves against the entire Bison defense. It was an unlikely offensive strategy. In fact it was no strategy at all; Holy Cross could not pierce Bucknell's man-to-man. But Burrell plays his own version of blacktop basketball, the kind a kid plays when the adults are not around: chancy, unconventional, spectacular. The freshman did just enough -- one time making a floater in the lane, and another time drawing a foul after which he converted both free throws.
Still behind by a half dozen, Bucknell employed the inevitable strategy of fouling Holy Cross to stop the clock. The Crusaders missed the front ends of one-and-ones, while Ayers and Johnson each made threes.
In the final minute, a missile by Ayers for three points after a missed Holy Cross foul shot cut the lead to two points, as close as Bucknell had been since the opening minutes. On the ensuing inbound play, Devin Brown collided with Steven Kaspar as both players lunged for the ball. The foul was assigned to the Bison's Kaspar with 1.5 seconds left. Brown missed both free throws, but Bucknell could do nothing with the rebound. Holy Cross had escaped, 54-52.
We filed out past the Cousy statue. Crusader fans had witnessed a satisfying win, an unlikely win, but no one could believe we'd seen anything that changed the power structure in the Patriot League.
Back in the driveway, Ian and I resumed our game. In my lifetime of playing sports, Ian has risen to the status of my all-time foe. The hitter to whom I have given up the most home runs, the striker against whom I have surrendered the most goals, the sprinter who always nips me at the tape. On this day he backed me down toward the basket, dribbling the ball. I played soft defense, hands at my side, pretending to be a Holy Cross forward with four fouls. I was ready to fall for any fake to give him an advantage. Ian held the ball under his chin, like Muscala. But he never pivoted. Instead, he executed an unorthodox slide step under my arm and spun the ball off the backboard and in.
I was picturing Muscala, but Ian played it like Burrell.
at HOLY CROSS 54, BUCKNELL 52 02/18/2012
BUCKNELL 20-8 (10-2) -- B. Cohen 2-5 0-0 4; M. Muscala 9-16 2-2 20; J. Willman 3-7 0-0 6; C. Ayers 3-7 0-0 7; B. Johnson 3-7 0-0 8; R. Hill 1-3 0-0 2; S. Kaspar 1-7 1-3 3; B. Fitzpatrick 0-1 0-0 0; B. Brackney 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 23-54 3-5 52. HOLY CROSS 13-13 (7-5) -- D. Brown 1-4 2-4 4; J. Burrell 5-13 3-4 15; D. Dudzinski 2-8 3-5 7; R. Evans 2-7 0-0 4; M. Cavataio 4-6 0-0 9; E. Obeysekere 1-4 0-0 2; T. Abt 2-4 0-0 5; J. Stevens 2-4 0-0 5; D. Goens 0-0 0-0 0; P. Beans 1-2 0-0 3. Totals 20-52 8-13 54.
Three-point goals: BUCK 3-15 (B. Cohen 0-2; B. Johnson 2-5; M. Muscula 0-1; C. Ayers 1-3; R. Hill 0-1; S. Kaspar 0-3), HC 6-19 (M. Cavataio 1-2; D. Brown 0-3; R. Evans 0-1; J. Stevens 1-3; P. Beans 1-1; D. Dudzinski 0-2; J. Burrell 2-4; T. Abt 1-3); Rebounds: BUCK 30 (M. Muscula 10), HC 31 (D. Dudzinski 7); Assists: BUCK 12 (R. Hill 3), HC 13 (D. Goens 5); Total Fouls -- BUCK 15, HC 13; Fouled Out: BUCK-None; HC-P. Beans.