Last season, Bradley took a single game into overtime. This season, their first two games have gone to extra periods.
“We just got to fight to the end, we don’t know how the game’s going to end so we just got to go out there and play the way we know how to play,” senior Darius Hannah said. “And win, that’s what we’re looking for.”
In a rematch of last season’s double-digit loss against Utah State, junior Connor Hickman inspired the Braves to achieve the eventual 72-66 victory over the Aggies in this season’s showcase. This was the first time Bradley defeated a Mountain West Conference team after going 0-13 prior to Saturday night.
Hickman and Hannah were big factors in the Braves’ rematch, the former finishing with 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists while Hannah filled his stat sheet with 14 points, five rebounds and three blocks.
“First off I got to cut back on the turnovers, I know that,” Hickman said. “My teammates, they see me mess up something like that and they come over and it’s immediately like move on.”
While the majority of the first half consisted of low scoring and 15 separate ties, one Aggie constantly found success in the paint, making life difficult for the Braves. Forward Great Osobor registered 14 points in the first half, going 5-6 from the field.
“[Trying to] execute that post hit and try to contain him the best we can and I think we did that well sometimes and other times we kind of got away from him,” Hickman said.
Neither team could find their footing in the first half, as Bradley struggled to move the ball around, only getting one assist. Defensively, the story was similar.
“First half I thought they were more physical than us,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “We couldn’t really get anything going offensively [and] defensively we had a lot of breakdowns in transition defense.”
The first half ended 30-28 in favor of the Aggies after a layup was driven to the basket by Utah State’s Max Agbonkpolo. The back and forth continued in the second half as it took two minutes for the first two points to drop for the Braves, leveling the score at 30 all.
Bradley enjoyed their best few minutes after Hickman found his target from beyond the arc, putting the Braves in front 33-32 with 15:36 left. Bradley then went on a 10-2 run before Utah State took a timeout with 13:37 to go in the half.
“I thought we cleaned things up, we passed the ball way better in the second half,” Wardle said. “A lot more assists and less turnovers.”
After a quick defensive rebound by junior Christian Davis, freshman Demarion Burch drove straight to the post to increase the Braves’ lead to 42-34. The Aggies continued to attack the paint with less success as Osobor was limited to eight points the rest of the night.
“The defensive stops were big,” Wardle said. “We had multiple people step up for us in the second half. I thought [sophomore] Ahmet Jonovic was huge for us, he made some big buckets around the rim, he clogged up the paint.”
As the game winded down, Bradley had their final chance to finish the contest. After a Utah State timeout, the Braves had 19 seconds with the game tied 62 all. Hickman took the ball, drained the clock and waited until the last second to release a shot from beyond the arc. The ball came up just short, hitting the rim and straight to the hands of an Aggie forward.
There would be overtime in Peoria.
A free throw shootout followed in the first three minutes of overtime, with no team coming up with a substantial lead. With 2:32 left, what started as a Leons defensive rebound turned into some good buildup play with passes flying across the court. The play finished with a fully extended Hickman pass that ended with another thunderous Hannah dunk that ignited Carver Arena.
“First half was pretty even, second half they started to hit some threes and now we go down and I think with these first two games we have been able to stay pretty steady and stay together,” Davis said.
With less than a minute to go, the Braves continued to pass the ball, leading to another Leons-Hickman connection. Down by three points, the Aggies countered with a couple of free throws.
Leading by one point with 28 seconds to go, Wardle decided to take his last timeout. Feeling the court around, with the ball flowing well between Braves, it eventually came to Davis who delivered a near perfect corner three.
“My teammates and my coaches trust me to take those shots everyday,” Davis said. “So I feel like, who am I to not trust myself, so I’m just going to take them.”
With less than 10 seconds to go, Leons put the final nail in the coffin as he drained two free throws, winning the Braves their home opener.
Bradley stays at home as they host Tarleton State today at 7 p.m. in the opening game of the SoCal Challenge that runs through next week.
“Tuesday night’s gonna be a very physical game, a fast paced game, and we got to get our rest,” Wardle said.