Where to begin with this year’s basketball team?
The ups and downs are endless.
The team went 2-7 while the student body was on winter break and was blown out at Wichita State, making ESPN’s “Not Top Ten” in the process. But Wednesday, the Braves dominated the second half of the first game of the I-74 rivalry against Illinois State to cruise to victory.
Bradley, led by senior Walt Lemon Jr.’s 20, points cruised past archrival Illinois State 64-45 in front of more than 8,400 fans.
Sophomore Ka’Darryl Bell, who tied his career high with 11 points, joined Lemon Jr. in helping the Braves improve to a 3-4 record in Missouri Valley Conference play and 9-13 overall on the season. Wednesday night’s victory puts the Braves in a tie for fourth place in the MVC.
The first half of the game was sloppy for both teams. The Braves and the Redbirds combined to shoot 31 percent (17-54) from the field, 21 percent (4-19) from the three-point line. The teams combined for 12 turnovers, all in the first half, and the Braves hung on to a 25-22 lead at the break.
But the Braves came out firing in the second half led by Lemon Jr. and Bell. At the 9:36 mark of the second half, Bell nailed a three-pointer to catapult the Braves on a 12-0 run, and they never looked back.
Coach Geno Ford said he was proud of his team, especially after pulling out a huge victory over the Braves’ archrival.
“We had a tough time putting away some of the non-league teams that weren’t as talented as we were.” Ford said. “We were finally able to get some separation from somebody, and it was nice to do it against your number one rival.”
Ford also commended Lemon Jr. for staying focused even when he was a bit too excited at the beginning of the game and for his outstanding work ethic.
“There is nobody who has worked harder and has put in more hours than Walt [Lemon Jr.] has,” Ford said. “There aren’t three guys in our league who can finish half those shots he has because he is so elite.”
Lemon Jr., who now sits alone in 12th place on Bradley’s all-time scoring list with 1,527 points, was excited to get the win especially in his senior season.
“It’s always sweet to beat your archrival,” Lemon said. “This one is a little bit sweeter though because it is my last go around this year [as a senior].”
Lemon Jr. also credited the Red Sea and large crowd with helping the team get motivated during the game.
“The crowd was a big help for us tonight,” Lemon said. “It’s fun to play in front of all those people but it is especially fun to play in front of the people you see everyday in class.”
The Braves return to action Feb. 1 at 2:05 p.m. when they visit the Bears of Missouri State.