Columbia had a chance to pull out another big victory at a raucous Levien Gymnasium, but one very big obstacle stood in their way. Bucknell’s Mike Muscala dominated the paint and led the Bison to a 65-57 victory.
Muscala scored 29 points, grabbed 19 rebounds and refused to let his team lose on Saturday night. He rescued the Bison from a 17-point first half deficit and almost single-handedly got the Lions’ entire frontline in foul trouble.
Muscala’s presence in the paint also affected Columbia’s offense. The Lions shot 15-41 (36.6%) on two-point attempts. Brian Barbour scored 19 points, but was 3-11 inside the arc.
“I think I took a couple runners that I probably should’ve looked out on,” Barbour said. “He altered it just by the slightest bit and I had a couple roll off. Just having him there he’s kind of a presence and we knew that going into the game and he did a good job coming over and contesting some shots.”
For Columbia it was a lost opportunity to get another statement victory. Bucknell, not Lehigh, is probably the Patriot League’s best team and has the bodies to prove it. The Bison are ranked 42nd nationally according to Pomeroy. Also, Muscala, not C.J. McCollum was the Patriot League’s Player of the Year last season.
“They had a great individual performance out of a very good player,” said Columbia head coach Kyle Smith. “We gave a good effort, but it wasn’t good enough tonight.”
The other reason that Columbia could’ve used the win is because the Lions are entering a stretch of play where they’ll have just one game in the next three weeks. Fairleigh Dickinson dropped a game from the schedule that was supposed to be played on Dec. 4. Thus only a game next Sunday at American is left before Columbia goes on a break for exams.
That time off should give Smith time to keep integrating his younger players. Freshmen played a huge role once again on Saturday night. Grant Mullins started the game, but scored just two points on 1-6 shooting. Zach En’Wezoh and Maodo Lo also played. En’Wezoh quickly picked up four fouls in six minutes while attempting to guard Muscala. Even though Lo went 0-3 from the floor and scored two points, he grabbed seven boards and played strong defense.
All three of those players along with classmate Isaac Cohen are going to get minutes this season. They’re part of a youth movement that can make playing in hostile environments – even at home – difficult.
“I think the fact that [Smith] is playing that amount of freshmen shows that he has confidence in them,” said sophomore Alex Rosenberg, who scored 15 points. “We have some very good freshmen on our team. As time goes along they’re going to continue to get better and they’re going to break through. They’re going to impact things even more.”
Smith will keep trying to find a way to make sure the young players are developed for the future and the Lions can continue competing during a non-conference schedule that now gets much easier.
“We’ve got to put the ball in the basket,” said Smith. “That’s part of growing up, playing in front of a crowd.”
The Lions are sitting on the precipice of a big time run. Their toughest remaining non-conference challenges – Manhattan and Elon – come to Levien in late December. If they win those games it could set the Lions up well for a run as a contender in the Ivy League. Luckily, Muscala won’t be there.