EASTON, Pa. (AP)—Bucknell’s national ranking was gone before the team got on the bus.
When Pat Flannery saw the bus driver had scrawled the freshly earned “No. 24” in soap on the windows, the coach grabbed a broom and wiped off the tribute before his players could see it.
The message was clear: The ranking was nice, but this was nothing for his players to work themselves into a lather about.
“That was the last thing we were going to come down to Lafayette in,” Flannery said.
Charles Lee had 14 points and 11 rebounds , and Kevin Bettencourt scored 14 points to lead No. 24 Bucknell to a 69-49 victory over Lafayette on Wednesday night in its first game as a ranked team.
The Bison (21-3) became the first Patriot League team to start conference play 12-0, won their 16th straight league game and matched the best start in school history, set in 1983-84.
Bucknell was denied a chance to win the regular-season title Wednesday when Lehigh beat Colgate 67-58, delaying that accomplishment at least one more game.
“We wanted to come in and win that regular-season championship,” Lee said. “We talked about the great things we did last year, but we didn’t get that regular-season championship. That’s one of the things we’re fighting for.”
Underdogs no more, the program from a small private school with a reputation for knocking off some of the nation’s top teams found itself in elite company when it moved into the national rankings for the first time this week. No Patriot League team had been ranked since the conference’s inception in 1990-91.
If the Bison were nervous about playing with a numeral before their name, it sure didn’t look like it against Lafayette (10-14, 4-7). The Leopards kept it close with some early 3-pointers until the Bison ended the first half on an 18-3 run and cruised to its school record-tying 11th road win.
“I didn’t feel any pressure at all,” said Chris McNaughton, who scored 12 points. “It’s great to be ranked and we obviously feel pretty good about it, and we should, but I don’t think it changes anything about the way we play.”
Donald Brown also scored 12 points for Bucknell.
McNaughton and Bettencourt each hit big baskets for Bucknell, much like they did when they knocked off third-seeded Kansas in last year’s NCAA tournament and exploded into the national spotlight. The Bison proved this season they were no one-win wonder, winning at Syracuse this season and getting Top 25 votes throughout their winning streak before finally earning the coveted national ranking.
Flannery didn’t want his players to rest on last season’s accomplishments and instilled a “No Entitlements” attitude into his players during the preseason. It looks like they listened.
“I don’t think any of us ever dreamed of being nationally ranked or getting some of the attention we’ve gotten,” Bettencourt said. “We just keep fighting and it keeps getting better. Hopefully we continue it, but we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Bettencourt hit two 3-pointers during that first-half run and Lee ended the half with a fastbreak dunk for a 35-20 lead. The Bison were simply too fast, too tall and too good for the Leopards.
Lafayette pulled within 10 points early in the second half, but a 15-6 run by the Bison was capped by Brown’s slam and pushed the lead back to 19.
The Bison shot 58 percent and outrebounded Lafayette 44-23.
Andrei Capusan had 12 points for the Leopards, who shot 30 percent and lost for the fourth time in five games.
It wasn’t too long ago that Lafayette was the class of the Patriot League, making the NCAA tournament under coach Fran O’Hanlon in 1999 and 2000. O’Hanlon, though, wasn’t ready to acknowledge Bucknell was the greatest Patriot League team, saying other programs had similar success.
“I think they’re as good as a lot of those teams,” he said. “I think you have to take those champions and say they’re as good as any of those championship teams.”
Lafayette hosted a ranked team for the first time since David Robinson and No. 19 Navy came away with a 75-71 win on Jan. 14, 1987.
Staying in the Top 25 for another week won’t be easy for the Bison, who play Saturday at Northern Iowa, which was also ranked for the first time in school history this season, in one of ESPN’s BracketBuster games. The Northern Iowa band ably substituted for Bucknell’s absent crew in last season’s NCAA tournament, using borrowed sheet music and wearing orange.
They should be playing a different tune Saturday.