Heading into Wednesday night’s third round matchup in The Basketball Tournament against Syracuse’s alumni Boeheim’s Army, Always a Brave knew that they would have their hands full.
With a decorated roster full of NBA, G-League, and overseas veterans, many dubbed Boeheim’s Army as the best team in the entire tournament. Following two shaky games where the team played slightly inconsistent, the visitors found their rhythm and took down Bradley’s alumni 69-54.
Former NBA 1st-round pick Chris McCullough led all scorers with 19 points and seven rebounds, only missing one shot from inside the arc. At 6-foot-9-inches with lengthy arms, McCullough presented problems on both ends of the floor for Always a Brave and prevented Always a Brave center Patrick O’Bryant from making much of an impact.
“I think [the hardest thing to defend was] his versatility,” Always a Brave head coach Daniel Ruffin said. “His ability to play at the five position, explained a little bit of the match up there with his ball screen and roll, the ball screen pop, using his quickness to get to the basket, things of that nature.”
McCullough made baskets when his team needed him to, putting up six of the eight points needed for Boeheim’s Army after the Elam Ending took effect in the fourth quarter. The forward also scored 10 points early in the first quarter and gave the Syracuse alumni a lead they would not relinquish five minutes into the first quarter.
“Going into the game, I just wanted to be aggressive. I wanted to get a win and play good defense, [have] good rebounding, all things I can do. I took advantage of my mismatch,” McCullough said.
“Having been here all week to watch Boeheim’s Army, their team is tall; they’re huge,” Always a Brave supporter and newfound local celebrity Wes Johnson noted.
Boeheim’s Army led 17-12 through the first stanza but after a three from Always a Brave’s Marcellus Sommerville, Boeheim’s Army picked up their weapons, primarily the deep ball. Shooting guard Andrew White III knocked down a pair of threes and Eric Devendorf added another. The Syracuse alumni lead 34-17 at one point but Always a Brave came back with 5 quick points after the second quarter media timeout, including a three from Max Bielfeldt.
Always a Brave trailed 38-28 heading into halftime, but not without three counts of controversy. A putback layup from Bielfeldt was initially called off due to a shot clock violation but replay appeared to show that Darrell Brown’s original floater hit the rim and thus would have reset the shot clock. The reason for the decision to wave off the shot turned out to be that the referees blew the whistle, signaling a dead ball that went in Boeheim’s Army’s favor since they had the possession arrow.
Nate Kennell layed one in for Bradley’s alumni for their last basket of the second quarter as he crashed to the floor hard with no foul called. On the last play of the first half, Sommerville appeared to have been impeded on his 60-foot prayer at the halftime buzzer. Each verdict by the referees drew the loud ire of the biggest crowd of the tournament at Carver Arena.
“There was going to be some calls that we think should have been made but all in all, [I] was trying to get them to understand that the refs are human, so we’ve got to play through,” Ruffin said.
Coming down the stretch, Always a Brave mounted little spurts of momentum, but could never get closer than eight points away from the lead.
Bielfeldt led the charge for the Braves alumni in the second half, and brought the house down after his second three-pointer of the game, but a 7-0 run by Boeheim’s Army featuring back-to -back threes from Tyrese Rice helped the visitors maintain a 10-point lead.
“We haven’t been together for a long time so chemistry-wise, when adversity hits, we’ve got to just focus,” McCullough said. “When we lock in, you see our level of intensity, our athleticism, our quickness, our ability to score the ball so I just think it’s a level of focus that we have since we’re three games in now.
Darrell Brown’s instinct to take over the game began in the fourth, scoring the first 10 points for Always a Brave in the final quarter. The decorated guard led Always a Brave in scoring with 16, followed by Sommerville and Bielfeldt who put up 10 each.
Not to be denied though, guard Keifer Sykes kept the lead sufficient for Syracuse’s alumni. Sykes, a former pupil of Bradley head coach Brian Wardle at UW-Green Bay, drained a deep ball off a feed from Devendorf to make their lead 58-43 and later converted a layup while being fouled, pounding his chest afterwards.
Proving that they would not be victims of Elam Ending dramatics, Boeheim’s Army continued to play level-headed basketball until McCullough hit a free throw to reach the target score of 69 and win the game.
“They have a bunch of professionals and they played that way but I give our guys credit,” Ruffin said. “I thought that they were prepared for us and that only happens when you play well.
“Like [Ruffin] said, they were a little bit better than they’ve been the last two games and they showed it to them,” Sommerville added.
Despite the loss, each crowd for Always a Brave games proved to be a promising precursor to the Bradley basketball season in a little over three months.
“[The tournament] really kind of exceeded our expectations after the way things went on Saturday,” Johnson said.
Sommerville, who finished the tournament second on the team with 10 points per game, emphasized how much hosting a TBT Regional meant.
“I love it. I love the tournament. I think they do a great job presenting a great product of basketball so I think they should continue to do it here,” Sommerville said. “I hope we were able to display Bradley basketball and create some momentum for the current team and just the town in general for what’s to come.”