For the moment, there appears to be two vastly different Bradley basketball teams.
There’s the team that’s undefeated at Carver Arena this season. Then there’s the team that’s 2-6 away from home and keeps doubts afloat. For the Braves, the latter team showed up on Wednesday night at Murray State in a 67-58 loss where Bradley’s star senior forward Rienk Mast got brickwalled and their offense pulled a vanishing act after the first seven minutes.
“We don’t have the same focus as home games,” sophomore guard Zek Montgomery said. “That’s got to be something we improve on as a team.”
Bradley was the heavy favorite to dominate in the paint on both ends of the court after Murray State forward Jamari Smith (13.2 points per game) did not play due to illness. The Racers started a lineup of four guards and a tough, but not physically imposing, forward.
That forward, DJ Burns, ended up posting a 16-point, 10-rebound double-double but more impressively, he and his teammates forced Mast into a frustrating outing. The Dutch forward finished with three points and one rebound, his lowest scoring output in over a year.
“They did a good job on Rienk,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “Rienk’s gotta be more aggressive [but] he got in foul trouble.”
Murray State spewed out multiple runs, often fueled by offensive rebounds, to lead for a majority of Wednesday’s contest. After trailing 20-12 in the early going, the Racers went on a 19-3 run over the span of nearly eight minutes to nab a 31-23 lead with 3:16 to go in the first half.
“We got driven too much [and] our ball screen defense was a little too slow at times,” Wardle said of Bradley’s shortcomings defensively.
During that span, Mast sat on the bench saddled with two fouls. Without their leading scorer and rebounder on the court, the Braves looked lost, shooting tough shots and not matching Murray State’s physicality on the glass – giving up five second chances before the 8-minute mark.
“You could tell our focus was gone and then it was all downhill from there,” Wardle said. “They were the tougher team, they got to the ball quicker, they wanted it more in certain situations and it’s not a game we feel very good about.”
The Racers outrebounded Bradley 39-32, a type of margin that Bradley is used to coming out on the other end of. Three-pointers continued to plague the Braves on the road as well; after starting 4-5 from deep, they finished 3-21 from behind the arc after that. Bradley shot 34 percent from the field as a team compared to Murray State’s 43 percent.
“Defense can only go and play so hard on the defensive end, you’ve got to make some shots eventually,” Wardle said. “Our starting backcourt went three of 20 from the floor.”
“Our road shooting is poor…it’s poor,” he added. “Coaches are doing everything we can with all our experience to be creative but ultimately, we’ve got to keep getting mentally tougher when we go into these arenas.”
Trailing 34-27 at the half, sophomore guard Connor Hickman and junior guard Duke Deen shot open 3’s and neither of them went down.
“We shot extra last night in here and this morning but that’s where the mental toughness has got to be during the game,” Wardle said. “You’ve got to believe in yourself and be confident no matter how the game’s flowing.”
Murray State, meanwhile, took a different approach to start the half by attacking the basket and scoring their first eight points of the half in the paint. 3-pointers from Montgomery and Hickman plus baskets by senior guard Ville Tahvanainen and junior forward Darius Hannah cut the Bradley deficit to 42-38 at the first media timeout of the second half.
“Definitely out of halftime I thought we were going to come back, get in the game and actually win it but it didn’t work out that way,” Montgomery said.
Montgomery, a Louisville, Kentucky native who played in front of his mother, Erica, and grandmother, Tanya, led Bradley with 11 points, followed by senior forward Ja’Shon Henry’s 10 points and seven rebounds. Aside from Burns, the Racers had three players – Rob Perry, JaCobi Wood, and Quincy Anderson – score 10 points.
Henry slammed home a dunk at 11:02 and two minutes later, finished a 3-point play that got the Braves within one point of the Racers on both occasions. Although he saw his team’s lead cut to 46-45 with 9:12 remaining, Murray State guard Brian Moore Jr. had other ideas and keyed a 13-1 Murray State run with eight points of his own from layups and free throws.
“We could’ve came together more as a team,” Montgomery said. “I feel like our energy wavered at times. We just didn’t come to play. They just out-toughed us in areas and we’ve got to be better.”
During that run, Wardle was also called for a technical foul for arguing with an official about a questionable offensive foul call on Henry; a summation of the frustration that Bradley endured all night long.
“We’ve got to get mentally tougher,” Wardle said. “We’ve got to have more dog come out of us. We gotta get on the road and be confident like we are at home and make shots and finish.”
As time ticked down in the second half, Bradley could get no closer than eight points. But playing in panic mode down 63-53 with just under a minute to play, the Braves made matters interesting with Deen drawing a foul call on a missed 3-point jumper. The reigning MVC Newcomer of the Week made his first two and missed his last before senior forward Malevy Leons got the offensive rebound and turned it into a 3-point play.
On the ensuing inbounds pass, Hickman nearly helped Bradley get the ball back by trying to force a jump ball but was called for the foul instead, effectively ending the short-lived comeback attempt.
With the loss, the Braves moved to 10-6 on the year and 3-2 in conference play. Bradley has now let two winnable conference games on the road fall through their hands; two games that could come back to bite them in two months time when seedings for Arch Madness are decided.
Wednesday night proved that Bradley can still get beat – even if matchups and momentum favor them on paper – and they’ll have to keep that in mind when returning for home games against Valparaiso (6-10) and Evansville (4-12) on Saturday and Wednesday, respectively, as they look to keep their year-long unbeaten streak at Carver Arena alive.
But to win the Missouri Valley Conference, a team has to win games on the road consistently, and it’s a lesson that Bradley is still learning.
“Right now, I guess travel is getting to us,” Montgomery said. “At home, we play good. At away games, we’re not so good. We don’t play Bradley basketball at away games. That’s something where we’ve got to get better.”