On Wednesday afternoon, Bradley narrowly defeated Toledo 61-59 to open the 2020-21 campaign at the Xavier Invitational in Cincinnati. It was the Braves’ first contest since their victory in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game 261 days ago.
But the late game heroics were conducted by a player who hadn’t seen game action in 622 days.
With 16 seconds left on the clock and the game tied at 59, junior guard Terry Nolan Jr. drove to the basket and missed a layup. As the rebound was bouncing out of the baseline, Nolan leaped to corral the ball and tossed it off a Rockets defender in order for Bradley to retain possession.
Following a timeout, Nolan found the ball in his hands once again, drove to the right block and made an off-balanced layup through contact that won the game for the Braves with .8 seconds remaining.
“Towards that last minute, it was all about ‘win’ honestly,” Nolan, who redshirted last season at Bradley after transferring from George Washington, said. “Going into the timeout, coach drew up a play and he said ‘go back [to the rim] … make the play,’ so I told my teammates, I said ‘I ain’t missing this again,’ … and they put the ball in my hands and that was game.”
After all the time off, head coach Brian Wardle came away with a familiar feeling postgame.
“Eight and a half months off and it feels like we’re right back at Arch Madness,” Wardle said. “You had two teams … laying it on the line out there. It was physical.”
Prior to the final seconds, though, things weren’t so simple for Bradley.
In the first half, the rust showed as the Braves found themselves down by as many as 12 points, shooting 32 percent from the floor, including 0-11 from 3-point range. The Rockets were in the same boat, shooting just 28 percent in the frame, which helped Bradley keep the halftime deficit to just 28-20.
“In the first half, I don’t think we played very well; we didn’t rebound well, didn’t go to the glass, settled too much offensively, took some bad shots,” Wardle said.
In the second half, the Braves shifted their attention to the paint and it paid off. Thanks to a team-leading 14 points from senior forward Elijah Childs and 11 points from junior center Ari Boya, the team outscored Toledo 30-20 in the paint.
The 3-pointers started falling as well, starting with junior Ja’Shon Henry at the 13:38 mark in the second half, which trimmed Toledo’s lead to just one. From then on, the Braves knocked down five 3s – including two apiece from Nolan and sophomore Ville Tahvanainen.
“In the first half we took some contested and tough 3s, some shots we really shouldn’t have taken,” Nolan said. “Second half, we kind of noticed that and noticed that our shot wasn’t falling, so we tried to get to the rim more, and eventually when we did get to the rim, 3s were falling.”
The final box score was a balanced one for the Braves, with four players reaching double digits. Nolan and Henry both finished the game with 10 points, both tallying eight in the closing frame. Sophomore guard Sean East stuffed the stat sheet, picking up eight points, six rebounds and eight assists.
“I’m proud of our guys,” Wardle said. “You’ve gotta be a competitive group, you’ve gotta be willing to defend and rebound when you’re not making shots, and that was tonight for us.”
Bradley will have a quick turnaround after this afternoon’s thriller, taking on event host Xavier tomorrow at 11 a.m. Central Time.
The Musketeers turned heads by pounding Oakland 101-49 to open their season on Wednesday morning. Wardle said he knows his team has a few things to shore up if they want to win their Thanksgiving Day matchup.
“[Xavier] looked really good today,” Wardle said. “They moved the ball well on offense, shot it very very well, did not turn it over. They were a top-25 defensive team in the country last year, they’re long, they’re big and they really guard. So, we got to do a better job getting open, moving the ball, getting out in transition. I think that’s going to be key for us… and obviously, we’re going to need to shoot the ball better from 3 tomorrow.”
With the big matchup waiting tomorrow, there’s not much time for the Braves to bask in the victory.
“No time to celebrate, we get right back to the drawing boards tomorrow,” Nolan said. “What coach says is we focus 80 percent on us and 20 percent on the opponent. If we just play our game I think that we’ll be fine.”
But after a triumphant return to the court after an elongated absence, Nolan can’t help but recognize the satisfaction of the moment.
“Just to be out there, and in my first game back, have a game winner, it just feels great,” Nolan said with a smile.