Members of Always a Brave are no stranger to success. Marcellus Sommerville and Patrick O’Bryant led the Braves to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament in 2006. Darrell Brown and Nate Kennell took Bradley to back to back NCAA Tournaments in 2018 and 2019. But for over 30 minutes of Saturday’s game against the Chicago Hoopville Warriors, Bradley’s alumni team trailed against a squad mainly made up of non-Division I players; not how one would expect a team with the likes of Darrell Brown, O’Bryant, and Sommerville to play. Trailing 66-58 heading into the untimed Elam Ending, Always a Brave needed a miracle, an even bigger one than their 2016 comeback against the Jackson TN Underdawgs, where Jeremy Crouch and Tony Bennett sunk two three-pointers in 11-seconds to erase a five point deficit. To make matters worse, Always a Brave was without Bradley legend Donte Thomas, who was not in uniform due to a minor knee injury suffered recently.
Following a fast break layup and subsequent free throw by Warriors guard Anthony Harris to begin the Elam Ending, hope looked bleak. The faces of fans clad in Bradley red looked grim, empty and devoid of excitement.
The abnormally quiet crowd needed to rally behind one of their beloved. The sense of needing a win to instill pride in the city and the Bradley community after a tumultuous year for Braves basketball was deafening.
Peoria High School and Bradley graduate Marcellus Sommerville, at 39 years old, lumbering up and down the court during the latter parts of the game, heeded their calls.
Following three misses at the free-throw line from the Warriors and surviving shot after shot which would have ended the game, Sommerville received a half-court pass from Darrell Brown. Knotted at 73, one point away from victory, neither team had seen the ball go through the net in eight possessions. Even a simple lay-in seemed to have had the difficulty of a successful half-court heave.
Wide open at half court, the veteran Sommerville calmly dribbled in for what could have been the loudest uncontested layup in any basketball fan’s memory and sending the Carver Arena crowd home ecstatic as can be.
Down by 16 late in the game, Sommerville’s game-ending basket capped the biggest Elam Ending comeback in TBT history. Always a Brave was no stranger to being counted out though.
The team’s comeback in 2016, which happened before the Elam Ending was instituted in TBT play, seemed easy compared to what Always a Brave had to battle through on Saturday, according to head coach Daniel Ruffin
“Being on the sideline and watching them compete and fight to get that win, this had to be a tougher one. We just had to come at them possession after possession and we honestly had some possessions where we should’ve closed the gap and we didn’t. We could’ve easily put our head down but we still competed, we still fought, we still battled and made it hard for the other team,” Ruffin said.
Trailing 66-50 with 30 seconds before the Elam Ending began at the under four minutes media timeout in the fourth quarter, O’Bryant quickly scored five points by himself, putting back in his own miss at the rim and following up the next possession with a wide-open deep ball from the top of the key.
After a missed 3-pointer from the Warriors’ Royce Parran, Nate Kennell dropped in a three of his own off a beautiful feed from Luqman Lundy to bring Always a Brave to within eight.
It took heart for Always a Brave to even come close to a victory, given their double-digit deficit. Their heart showed on the defensive end when it mattered most, forcing stop after stop to keep the fans engaged as ever on their feet.
Needing five points to win, Warriors guard Anthony Harris, who led the team with 20 points, calmly knocked in a three with Kennell’s hand right in his face, drawing the underdogs to within a basket of winning.
If Always a Brave needed anything at that point, it was even more heart. The team didn’t let their coach Ruffin down, forcing stop after stop with O’Bryant and Sommerville locking down the paint repeatedly.
“This last week, we practiced stops and buckets. The only win you can score and win the game is if you get a stop and a bucket. When it got down to the Elam Ending the one thing I said was “We can’t worry about the end, we’ve got to worry about what’s right now. We’ve got to get a stop and a bucket, a stop and a bucket,” Ruffin said.
Always a Brave succeeded in getting stops, but many wondered how long they could keep the Warriors shut down, especially with older players like O’Bryant and Sommerville on the court.
The hope of a victory came and went like waves on the shore. Turnover after turnover, missed shot after missed shot, critical foul after critical foul from both sides made the game feel like a timewarp, where the same events were re-lived over and over.
No moments were more scary than when the Warriors had three opportunities to knock in a free throw and end the game. Every one of their attempts clanked off the rim, including one from Parran who once made 19 free throws in one game during his time at Chicago State.
Still down 73-65, the Peoria native Sommerville scored five of his game-high 17 points in a row, drawing Always a Brave to within a possession. After a combined nine straight misses from both teams, Warriors head coach Larry Moore Jr. called timeout to calm their nerves.
Brown turned the ball over for Always a Brave on the ensuing possession, only to recover it after a bad pass from Warriors forward Tajuan Agee and drained his first three-pointer in six attempts. The moment the shot dropped, Carver Arena erupted into a sea of noise.
“They were just waiting for us to bust it open so they can do what they always do, which is be the best fans in the world. As soon as we busted open and hit that 70 mark, they went to where they always go,” Always a Brave guard Tony Bennett said with a smile.
Tied at 73 after at least 37 minutes of play, Sommerville’s layup came as a result of Bradley’s alumni gritting it out and fighting through the pain; not an easy task for players in their late 30’s like Sommerville, O’Bryant, and Tony Bennett.
Agee, who was guarding Sommerville throughout the Elam Ending, in fact could not even continue the affair, jogging to the sideline bent over with fatigue in the middle of the the game’s most crucial moment. Meanwhile, Parran of the Warriors prematurely jumped for a putback attempt to win the game and left Brown with the rebound. The rest was history.
The road to victory appeared impossible. Earlier in the game, every scoring run and crucial three-pointer from Always a Brave was met with a momentum-killing basket by the Warriors, quieting the raucous crowd. The Braves alumni kept finding high percentage jump shots through crafty ball movement all game long, but the open looks never dropped when they needed them to. However, Ruffin’s confidence never wavered.
“My main thing is that I need to let my players know that I’m behind them 100%. If they see me frustrated, than it’s more than likely they’re going to be frustrated,” Ruffin said. “They would get down and try and do things that I wouldn’t have necessarily wanted them to do. If I stay positive and stay active, I think in the long run everything will work out.”
The former Brave Bennett mentioned that one of the biggest reasons Always a Brave emerged victorious was Ruffin.
“He’s a real coach, he’s everything and he stayed poised over there and made it easier,” Bennett said. “When they kept missing those free throws, I was just thinking like ‘Yeah, our time will come, we’re sneaking up on them and sure enough we got [the winning basket] easier than I thought we would. It was one of the hardest games ever.”
The bond between former Peoria High teammates Ruffin and Sommerville was apparent, with the former trusting in the game’s hero, despite a rough start from Sommerville. Before the fourth quarter, Always a Brave’s starting small forward was 2-8 from the field and got beat multiple times in the paint defensively.
“Daniel, he trusted us and I asked him ‘Please, timeout’ and he wanted to save it for a situation but he trusted his team and that just takes good coaching,” Sommerville said.
For the 32 minutes of play before the Elam Ending, Always a Brave trailed for just over 28 of them. The Braves alumni had a chance to take the lead at the half and seemingly did for a second, but a three from Kennell was waved off as his foot stepped out of bounds just before the shot. Gavin Schumann of the Warriors sent up an off-balance prayer from deep that dropped at the horn to give the #10 seed a 33-28 lead at the intermission.
Behind 43-37 halfway through the third quarter, Always a Brave felt like it was their time to take over, scoring seven straight to take a one point advantage. Alas, a 9-0 run from Parran and Aubrey McAlpine from the Warriors to end the third proved it was not time to get comfortable.
Although Always a Brave, all dripping in sweat and bent over from pure exhaustion after the game, never did seem comfortable against the scrappy group from Chicago, playing from behind reminded them of the hallmark of Bradley basketball: Never backing down.
When asked how such an incredible comeback was completed, Ruffin preached the identity that has been cemented in the Bradley basketball program for years.
“Heart. I think Bradley and its tradition is built on heart. We find a lot of guys that come through here that battle, that fight until the end and just competing nonstop. That’s what we do,” Ruffin said. “We might not be the most talented but you’re going to get our best effort.”
Always a Brave’s best effort leads them into the second round, where they will take on the 15th seeded Jackson TN Underdawgs on Monday night at 8 P.M. The Underdawgs fought, clawed, and scraped their way to a team-defining 64-58 win against the 2nd seeded Illinois alumni team House of ‘Paign earlier on Saturday.
Until then, Sommerville and Always a Brave will take some much needed rest after the grueling victory.
“We’ve got to refill tomorrow for sure. We’ve got to make a couple pit stops maybe a little ice bath and we’ve got to rely on some of these young guys,” Ruffin said. They’ve seen what these old guys can do. Now we’re looking at them to kind of carry us.”
Given Always a Brave’s tenacity, cohesiveness, unselfishness, sheer drive and history of making indescribable moments happen, it will be impossible to ever count out their heart again.