La Salle had proved it could compete against some of the country's elite teams. But coach John Giannini could see this coming.
He could see it in the lethargy that seemed to grip his team in the practices after Sunday's stomach-churning loss to Villanova. He could see it in the many defensive lapses that have afflicted the Explorers and prevented them from reaching their potential.
"This is going to sound bizarre, but in some ways I'm relieved," Giannini said after well-drilled Bucknell easily defeated La Salle, 89-77, Friday at Tom Gola Arena. "I almost feel like they needed this to realize how important consistency is in practices and in games and how important defense is. I know what a good team looks like, and there are times when we're close to being very good, and I also know there is this other side to us."
For the third consecutive game, the Explorers (6-5) surrendered more than 80 points. But even if they were at the top of their game, they would have had a difficult time getting a handle on Bucknell (5-6), which hadn't played in 13 days yet functioned like a high-end Swiss watch.
"They were wonderful," Giannini said. "If I wasn't getting beaten so soundly, I would have enjoyed watching them play."
La Salle lost freshman point guard Tyreek Duren midway through the first half with a hip pointer. Duren suffered the injury in a collision as he drove the lane.
Bucknell was brutally efficient on offense, leaving La Salle's defenders perplexed with its crisp ball movement, deadly three-point shooting, and well-timed drives down the lane. The Bison shot 54.8 percent for the game and 60 percent (21 for 35) in the second half. They nailed 9 of 18 three-point attempts and handily offset a career-high 28 points scored by La Salle's 6-foot-10 sophomore, Aaric Murray.
The Bison had an answer for Murray in Mike Muscala, a 6-11 sophomore who appears on the cusp of dominating the Patriot League. Muscala scored 21 points, pulled down six rebounds, and handed out five assists. Bucknell had 23 assists on 34 baskets, a measure of splendid teamwork.
Bryan Cohen, a 6-5 junior guard from Abington Friends with a reputation as a stopper, also had his way with La Salle, scoring 19 points on 7-for-11 shooting. It was Cohen who got the Bison going again after the Explorers chopped a 15-point deficit to 53-49 in the second half. Cohen scored back-to-back baskets from the lane to allow Bucknell to retake control of the game.
"I know he's capable of that," Giannini said of Cohen. "He's been focusing on defense more and he hasn't been putting up those kind of numbers, but I have a lot of respect for Bryan and I knew he could have a great game like that."
Three of La Salle's losses had come against teams ranked in the Associated Press poll - No. 9 Baylor, No. 10 Villanova and No. 13 Missouri. The loss to Villanova was particularly galling to the Explorers because they had an eight-point lead with 5 minutes, 23 seconds remaining.
Giannini said the disappointment of the loss to the Wildcats carried through the practices for Bucknell.
"Whether it's emotionally being a little down or whether it's thinking you're a little bit better than you are, this week was just a perfect storm of negative factors," he said. "But Bucknell was really good. We were unprepared, and I just can't let that happen again."