Trailing Loyola University by two points with 27.6 seconds left, the Bradley men’s basketball team had 24 shot clock seconds to either tie or take the lead.
Freshman Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye inbounded the ball to fellow freshman Ronnie Suggs, who quickly passed the ball to sophomore Donte Thomas.
Thomas hesitated before returing the ball to Lautier-Ogunleye with 17.2 seconds left and then jogged toward head coach Brian Wardle. Wardle motioned Thomas down the 3-point arc to where he would win the game with 15 seconds left.
“The whole game plan at that moment was to give [Lautier-Ogunleye] the ball and have him attack the guard that was guarding him, and if he had to kick, kick it,” Thomas said as his face widened to a half grin. “And it worked.”
Just as he remembers it, Lautier-Ogunleye gave Thomas the ball with an abrupt but accurate kick out pass and, almost as quickly as Thomas caught the ball, he shot it.
“I was wide open on the wing, when it left my hand it just felt good,” Thomas said. “I was just [watching it] go through the net.”
As improbably as Thomas’ game-winning three was, it highlighted his brief Bradley career, which could have ended 10 months ago.
Five days after Wardle was hired last March, six Bradley players announced they would transfer from the program, and four more would leave before the start of the season.
Wardle said he met with each of the players before they transferred to inform them he was going to change the program.
“I’m a very honest and direct coach, and I said the program’s going to change off the floor and on the floor,” Wardle said. “If you’re looking for different avenues and different routes to go, this program is moving in this direction, so I hope you’re on board.”
The transfers left Thomas and Ka’Darryl Bell as the only two remaining players from last season who would play for the Braves this year.
Although Thomas is only a sophomore, Wardle said he was impressed with his maturity when he talked with the small forward.
“Donte blocked out a lot of noise, and we had good talks,” Wardle said. “He just came in to work every day, wanted to see what me and my staff were all about. I think he knew he would get better under us.”
Wardle was right about his assumption.
So far this season, Thomas leads the team with an 8.6 points-per-game average and 121 rebounds.
A large part of his improvement can be simply explained by how much Thomas has played this year. Last year, Thomas played 368 minutes in 31 total games, a number which Thomas might double by season’s end as he’s played 557 minutes in 23 games so far.
“He’s finishing better, shooting the three a lot better [and] his ball handling is improved,” Wardle said. “I mean, just overall he’s played so many more minutes, and he’s got so much more experience that you can see his development and his confidence grow.”
That growth in confidence has become visible during games, with Wardle describing Thomas’s game against the Missouri State Bears as “fiery.”
“He has fire in him, and I’m fiery,” Wardle said. “I got on Donte about something defensively, and he looked at me and fired right back at me and said, ‘I got you. I’m fine coach.’ I love that. That’s care, that’s passion.”
However, the attraction of becoming a better basketball player wasn’t the main reason Thomas stayed in Peoria.
“I stayed becuase I felt like Bradley was home for me,” Thomas said. “I felt like I gained respect from the Bradley fans and just the community as a whole and the school. It’s a great school, and it’s not too far from home.”
Thomas, a Calumet City native, said he has come to love Bradley so much that he chose to stay; even with all the friends he had on last year’s team and changes he endured with this season’s squad.
“I think a coaching change is not a reason for me to leave my home,” Thomas said.
While staying in Peoria has rewarded him on the court with woes rather than wins in his sophomore campaign, Thomas said he doesn’t mind the challenges.
“I knew I would fight through the adversity there would be with new teammates,” Thomas said. “I didn’t think it was going to be a rough season, but I knew it was going to have some ups and downs. Honestly, I’m built for it.”
The new teammates that Thomas refers to are the 10 freshmen which took the place of last year’s transfers. Thomas said he’ll try to lead these freshmen to a few more wins, or “dubs,” as Thomas calls them, even though they’re technically older than him.
“[I’m] the older guy [as] a sophomore, even though I have nine guys on the team that are actually older than me, but they’re just freshmen,” Thomas said. “But I try to lead them in through the ways and try to get some dubs.”
As Thomas continues to improve, he’s arguably the best player on the Braves roster this season. However, he said he has no regrets about staying at Bradley as his old teammates transferred elsewhere.
“I built a great friendship with all those guys, I still communicate with them to this day,” Thomas said. “Of course it was kind of sad. But, hey, at the end of the day, we’ve got to do what’s best for each other. If that’s what they thought was best for them, they can go ahead and do it.”