In typical fashion, the Bradley men’s basketball team ended the season in a way only a 5-27 season could.
Bradley was conquered in a nip-and-tuck contest with Loyola-Chicago last night at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, where the young Braves were never able to brush off old habits or catch a break, in their 74-66 loss to the Ramblers.
Trailing by six with 1:40 left in the game, Bradley sophomore forward Donte Thomas’ would-be steal at midcourt turned into a scrum. The ball ended in Loyola forward Montel James’ hands in open court, who tallied in the easy layup for a four-point swing that all but sealed the game for the Ramblers.
“It didn’t break our back, though,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said of the play. “But there were 50-50 balls that just were unlucky bounces that went to them, and I think they got points off most of them.”
The Braves were able to cut the Rambler’s lead to six with under a minute to play, but Loyola made enough free throws in the foul game to preserve the win.
Four Bradley players ended up in double figures, with Thomas and freshman guard Ronnie Suggs leading the way, recording their own double-doubles.
Thomas notched 14 points and 14 rebounds, while Suggs added 15 points and 10 boards.
“I really wanted to go out there and play my hardest,” Thomas said. “After the game, I wanted to look at myself in the mirror and ask myself, ‘Do I feel like I gave it all my effort?’ And I felt like I did.”
Despite great individual performances, the Braves fell victim to the weaknesses that have plagued them all season: turnovers, fouls and cold shooting.
“It obviously came down to all season for us, but definitely in this game the turnovers hurt us,” Wardle said. “That stretch from the 12-minute mark in the second half to the eight-minute mark where Loyola went on a run, we just stalled out.”
As a team, the Braves committed 19 turnovers and ended the game with 17 fouls, but Bradley did out-shoot the Ramblers 43 percent to 40.
“Our Achilles’ heel this year is our offense and turnovers,” Wardle said. “We had moments of shooting the ball really well and reaching our potential shooting the ball, but we just had those five to eight-minute spurts offensively that just really hurt us.”
The Braves were stagnant when they were starved for points late in the game while Loyola made their late shots, many of which came from beyond the arc.
Loyola’s James gashed the Braves for 20 points and 17 rebounds, but it was the Rambler’s Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson who provided the final nails in Bradley’s coffin with late 3-pointers.
“To be quite honest, we wanted certain guys to beat us from three, and they did,” Wardle said. “I told the team that’s on the coaches.”
This came after a first half in which Bradley opened the game 5-5 from the field and had a slow-starting Loyola team on its heels.
Suggs and Thomas attributed the fast start to the excitement of postseason play but also to some advice they got before the game from MVC Hall of Famer and former Bradley star guard Anthony Parker.
“One of the quotes [Parker] said was ‘the quiet team is a scary team,’ and I felt like we did talk before the game,” Thomas said. “We were communicating all through the game with my great teammates.”
Suggs agreed there was a higher energy level going into this game compared to others this season.
“It’s Arch Madness; Who doesn’t get excited for that, first of all?” Suggs said. “I think from the beginning of the game, everybody was in attack mode, and everybody was bought in.”
As the Braves suffer from the familiar pain of losing a winnable game going into the offseason, Suggs said putting the season in perspective only emphasizes a hunger for next season.
“We’ve seen the ups and downs, and we know now what it takes to win at a college level,” Suggs said. “It’s like, in the beginning of the year, what we had in mind wasn’t exactly what the reality was. But going through this long season, we’re definitely hungry for some more wins, and we will get them this next season.”
As the Braves conclude what will stand as one of the worst seasons in program history, there is undoubtedly nowhere to go but up in the 2016-2017 season.
“We will be back,” Suggs said. “We will be ready.”