La Salle had ample time to shed the disappointment of Sunday's stomach-churning loss to Villanova and prepare for a challenge from well-drilled Bucknell.
At least it appeared that way.
But the Explorers seemed perplexed by Bucknell's crisp ball movement and had no answers for the Bison's hot shooters, and they went down to an 89-77 defeat on Friday at Tom Gola Arena.
Coming off a 13-day layoff, Bucknell (5-6) used a well-balanced scoring attack to offset a big game from La Salle's Aaric Murray, who had a career-high 28 points. The Explorers gave up too many easy baskets in the paint and never led after Darryl Shazier hit a three-pointer early in the game for a 10-8 Bucknell lead.
The game seemed to be slipping away from La Salle when Bucknell built a 48-35 lead early in the second half with an even mix of three-pointers and baskets in the lane. A sense of urgency gripped the Explorers, and they went on a 12-3 run to get back into contention.
But Bryan Cohen, a 6-foot-5 junior guard from Abington Friends who scored 19 points, put Bucknell on the move again with back-to-back baskets, forcing La Salle to keep climbing a hill.
La Salle lost freshman point guard Tyreek Duren in the first half with a hip pointer. Duren suffered the injury in a collision as he drove to the basket.
The game offered an interesting matchup between talented sophomore big men – Murray and Mike Muscala, who blocked 65 shots as a freshman to lead the Patriot League. The 6-11 Muscala, who entered the game leading the Bison in scoring (13.3 points per game) and rebounding (5.8), had 19 points, six rebounds and five assists. Murray is the leader in both statistical categories for the Explorers.
The two played to a virtual standoff in the first half. Both scored nine points while Murray had four rebounds and Muscala three. Muscala was limited to 12 minutes in the first half because he had two fouls.
With its backcourt scoring only three field goals in the first half, La Salle fell behind by 15 points in the first half before closing the gap to 36-28 by the break. The Explorers had a hard time finding the basket against Bucknell's collapsing defense, shooting only 40.7 percent. They were 1 for 8 from three-point distance and 5 for 11 from the free-throw line.
It wasn't until Earl Pettis drained La Salle's only three-pointer of the half with 4:12 remaining that the Explorers had a basket from someone other than Murray or Jerrell Williams.
The Explorers had proven they could compete with some of the nation's top teams. Three of their losses have come against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 25 poll - No. 9 Baylor, No. 10 Villanova and No. 13 Missouri. At Baylor, La Salle cut the Bears' lead to two points twice in the final nine minutes before going down, 74-64. The Villanova game went down to the buzzer last Sunday, and the Explorers ran out of gas the final 10 minutes of their 83-71 loss to Missouri.
In the other loss, La Salle played two overtimes against Oklahoma State. . According to realtimerpi.com, La Salle's strength of schedule is No. 28 in the country. St. Joseph's is No. 15 and Temple is No. 20.
Bucknell was coming off back-to-back home wins against Columbia and Boston University, two teams that battled La Salle.