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A brief history of the war on I-74

Connor Hickman against Illinois State, Photo/Rodrigo Perez

Back when Bradley men’s basketball was still in its infancy, and before they were in the Missouri Valley Conference, the Braves played their first game against Illinois State during the 1904-05 season. 

The Redbirds defeated the Braves 39-13, and with just 40 miles separating both campuses, a 119-year rivalry was born. 

Hearts that bleed red and white

“It’s a rivalry so you have to expect the most out of them,” senior forward Darius Hannah said after the Braves’ 73-60 victory over the Redbirds last Saturday. 

While it’s the players who fight the battles, a rivalry can’t last without the support of its fans. Whether it’s the proximity of both schools or their similar red and white colors, fans are always there to defend their crest. 

“It means a lot, and the crowd – they showed that it meant a lot,” Redbird guard Malachi Poindexter said. “It shows that we have a really good community and we really appreciate that a lot, but yet again we couldn’t get the outcome that the fans wanted.”

Bradley huddle, Photo/Rodrigo Perez

In the beginning

One hundred and thirty-seven games.

Both programs have become familiar with each other over the last 13 decades, with Bradley taking 71 of the 137 meetings. Still, this isn’t the Braves’ most-played opponent. Only fellow MVC associate Drake and former MVC member Wichita State have had more series with Bradley, 162 and 142, respectively.

Going back to Bradley’s first meeting against Illinois State, the Braves had a typical beginning for a new basketball program. Without a head coach or a home, Bradley originally played at the Peoria YMCA for their first seven seasons before moving on campus in 1909 following the construction of Hewitt Gymnasium. 

During those first few seasons, local high school teams were pitted against the Braves. Peoria, Canton and Washington High School made up the Braves’ schedule for those first couple of years.

Over a century later, the landscape has changed for Bradley. 

The Wardle era

After six seasons of the Bradley program finishing without a winning record, head coach Brian Wardle took the reins on a cool March day in 2015. Rebuilding the program from scratch, Wardle started his first season with the youngest team in the nation. 

It’s hard to imagine a team that didn’t go on multi-game win streaks while blowing out conference opponents week in and week out. However, there was a time when Bradley couldn’t even scrape past their closest adversary down the road. 

“It’s always good to beat your rivals, and my first couple of years I came here and got thumped pretty good and when I was building this program, we were young and not very good, and we needed to keep building and get better,” Wardle said. 

During his first two seasons, the Braves were swept by the Redbirds. Bradley didn’t get their first victory against Illinois State in the Wardle era until the 2017-18 season when they beat the Redbirds 70-58 in Peoria. 

“It’s a process and to be able to get wins here now and have a better program it obviously feels good,” Wardle said. 

With the next war on I-74 coming up in just a few weeks, another page will be written in the book of this deep-seated rivalry between two storied programs.

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