The Bradley women’s basketball team improved to 5-1 on the season after beating UC Riverside 59-56 in the championship game of the NAU Thanksgiving Classic on Saturday.
The win marked the first tournament title and best team start since the 2001-02 season, as well as the third victory in a row for the Braves, who have been led by the impressive play of freshman Michelle Lund.
Lund is the top-scorer on the team at 13.8 points per game, which includes a 22-point showing in Bradley’s 77-62 win over Northern Illinois last week.
In addition to leading the charge against UC Riverside with 13 points, Lund was named MVP of the tournament as well as Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Week.
“Michelle has been steady all year,” coach Paula Buscher said. “The past few games she has hit some big shots, and I know the team is very confident in her and we want her to take her open looks. She has deep 3-point range, which really helps open up our inside game so teams can’t double team our posts.”
Lund and the Braves were up for the majority of the game against UC Riverside, extending their first-half lead to as many as nine points, but a Highlander run made the game a little more interesting.
With less than 12 minutes to go, Bradley went on a five-and-a-half minute scoring drought, allowing UC Riverside to come back and take a 46-42 lead. The 11-point UC Riverside scoring run was stopped by a bucket from freshman MacKenzie Westcott, but the Highlanders answered right back with a 3-ball to give them what would be their biggest lead of the game at 50-44.
With two minutes to play, Lund struck with five consecutive points and an assist to junior Skye Johnson to give the lead back to Bradley at 53-52.
The two teams traded points until a pair of Johnson free-throws put the Braves up 59-56.
But it wasn’t until the teams ran back to the other side of the floor that Johnson sealed up the win as she rejected Seyram Gbewonyo’s potentially game-winning 3-pointer.
“Winning the tournament in Northern Arizona was a testament to this team’s competitiveness,” Buscher said. “Many things happened which could have knocked us off our focus in the championship game, but we stayed focused and made big plays when we needed them to come out on top.”
Johnson finished the game with 10 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and one steal, which was good enough to give her a position on the all-tournament team.
Coming off the bench, Westcott and sophomore Sonya Harris each chipped in 10 points in the Bradley win.
Although no Bradley player had more than Johnson’s seven rebounds, the Braves won the battle of the boards 42-28, which included allowing UC Riverside only 10 second-half rebounds.
Bradley earned its way into the championship game by knocking off the host school of the tournament, Northern Arizona, 83-66 last Friday night.
One of the biggest contributors in that game was the play of the Bradley bench, which was good for 38 points on 13-of-21 shooting.
“Our depth has been the key to our success so far,” Buscher said. “We have had different players step up and their ability to stick to the game plan has been a big plus this season. The defensive effort in the Riverside game was a key to the win.”
Senior Monica Rogers led the Braves with 12 points, but Lund, Westcott and freshman Leah Kassing all followed closely behind with 11. Senior Kelly Krumwiede also had 10 points for Bradley.
The win over Northern Arizona also marked Buscher’s 100th victory at Bradley.
On Saturday the Braves will travel to the United Center in Chicago to take on Illinois.