Senior night for the Braves had a promising feel early on, as the men’s basketball team opened a 17-11 lead on the 22-win Evansville Aces.
However, Evansville marred what would’ve been the Braves’ biggest upset over a Missouri Valley Conference opponent in nearly six years. The Aces put a damper on the Senior Night celebrations with a 67-55 win at Carver Arena Tuesday.
Bradley’s quick start cannot only be attributed to the emotions of Senior Night, but also how Evansville underestimated the young Braves.
“I thought we were very physical defensively,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “Everything was challenged. There were bodies around [senior guard D.J.] Balentine, we rebounded the ball really well and we looked aggressive.”
However, their physicality was matched by Evansville’s frontcourt.
“I don’t think Evansville expected us to be that physical against them,” freshman guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye said. “They really used [Evansville center Egidijus Mockevicius] a lot, they were physical and they started firing back at us.”
Mockevicius, who ripped into the Braves for 20 points and 17 boards, almost gave Wardle just as much trouble on the court as he did in the postgame press conference with his last name.
“Can you say his last name?” Wardle asked the press room apologetically after the game. “He’s a guy you study with your young bigs, to try and just pick up some things and what he does, because he’s had tremendous success.”
While Mockevicius filled up the stat sheet, Balentine, his senior counterpart, overcame a slow 1-3 shooting start to join Mockevicius in victimizing the young Bradley defense for 22 points of his own on 8-15 shooting.
Wardle lauded the duo of Mockevicius and Balentine, who combined for 42 of Evansville’s 67 points.
“They’re good,” Wardle said. “They finish everything around the rim, too. They have a system that fits their style, and [Evansville coach Marty Simmons] does a good job in getting them touches where they can score and be productive.”
The Braves challenged the Aces the entire first half, with Evansville taking a 29-25 lead into halftime. Unfortunately for Bradley, they couldn’t sustain the success into the second half, as Evansville’s experience and offensive prowess kept the Braves at bay.
“They wear you down, in a way,” Wardle said. “We tried to pick up the press a little bit and the tempo a little bit when we were struggling to score offensively, and we just could never really turn the corner and cut the lead back down.”
Even though Bradley struggled to establish consistency on offense, they found it early from freshman center Callum Barker, who went toe-to-toe with Mockevicius for most of the game.
“To be honest, we’ll use film of [Mockevicius] for [Barker] to study,” Wardle said. “He’s an extremely successful player in our league. He knows how to work his way around the basket in the paint and use angles and score with either hand.”
Barker scored 14 points for his first double-digit scoring effort since Jan. 16 against Missouri State and also grabbed six rebounds.
His physical first-half play keyed Bradley’s fast start, which Lautier-Ogunleye said is an example of the Braves’ improvement when comparing Tuesday’s 12-point loss to the 32-point loss they suffered on Jan. 9.
“We see the potential,” Lautier-Ogunleye said. “I hope the crowd is beginning to see and [I hope] everyone else that has been watching us is beginning to see it.”
Although Lautier-Ogunleye said he hopes the fans see the potential, Simmons also handed out some compliments to the Braves. Simmons noted the confidence as one of the main differences between the Braves in January and now is in their confidence.
“They’re very talented,” Simmons said. “They’ve got good athleticism, they play well together but they just seem to be more confident.”
As Simmons lauds the Braves for their new-found confidence, Wardle sees the Braves bettering in more than one category.
“There’s improvement in the competitiveness,” Wardle said. “The mentality, the preparation, execution of the game plan. This month we’ve been much better trying to implement what we work on in practice and carry it over to games.”
The Braves finish the regular season tomorrow when they go for the season sweep in Terre Haute, Indiana, against Indiana State at 1 p.m.