Bradley basketball notches biggest win of Ford era

In the sports world, overreaction is a way of life. When a team gets a big win, they’re the greatest thing since sliced bread. When a team loses a game it shouldn’t, they’re terrible.

The truth usually lies in the middle, and the overreaction, either good or bad, is generally annoying.

But Bradley’s 83-77 victory over I-74 rival Illinois State Tuesday night at Carver Arena is different.

It is without question the biggest win for this program in several years. A win that gives fans hope for the future after a couple of years occupying the basement of the Missouri Valley Conference.

The scene was perfect. Bradley’s biggest rival, who had beaten the Braves seven consecutive times, in the building. A near capacity, raucous crowd urging the team back from a 16-point first half deficit. Bradley taking control of the game down the stretch, which it had failed to do against the Redbirds the last few years.

It was a culmination of everything second-year coach Geno Ford has been working for since he arrived on campus.

In previous years, Illinois State had owned Bradley in nearly every aspect of the game. But Tuesday night was different.

The Braves were tougher than their rivals. They outhustled them. They were grittier, hungrier and despite a horrendous start they had a look about them from the opening tip that they weren’t going to lose this game.

Contributions came from everyone. Walt Lemon Jr. led the way with a career-high 27 points, but Dyricus Simms-Edwards also poured in 15 points and was, as usual, a pest defensively. Jake Eastman had nine second half points and sparked the Braves with his outstanding hustle and intangibles. Tyshon Pickett wasn’t intimidated by Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael, dropping 15 points and six rebounds.

It was truly a team effort.

“You can’t have a rivalry when one team never wins,” Ford said. “That’s what we kept telling our guys about. It’s not a rivalry if they beat us every time and that’s what has happened the last four years.”

You could see the joy on the seniors’ faces, who had never beaten Illinois State in six tries. Simms-Edwards couldn’t stop smiling in the postgame press conference. It was like he had finally gotten the monkey off of his back.

This wasn’t just a win in a big rivalry game. Beating Illinois State will have ramifications for the rest of the season. At 5-5 in the MVC, the Braves are in fifth place and positioning themselves to avoid the play-in round Thursday night in the conference tournament in St. Louis.

There is a lot of basketball left to be played, but if you would have told any fan in November that Bradley wouldn’t be playing Thursday night in St. Louis the season would be considered a major success. Especially after finishing dead last in the conference the past two seasons.

Bradley is still far away from a finished product. While the win was huge for the program, Illinois State hasn’t been a great team this season. The Redbirds are 12-10 overall and just 3-7 in the MVC after being picked to finish second in the preseason.

But none of that mattered Tuesday night. The Braves had finally beaten Illinois State. And the monkey that had been on the shoulders of the seniors for four years was finally lifted.

Alex Ross is a senior sports communication major from Fishers, Ind. He is the Scout sports editor.

Direct comments, questions and other responses to agross@mail.bradley.edu.