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Behind 17 threes, Braves wrangle Texans

Almar Atlason shoots a three. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Bradley men’s basketball took care of business against Tarleton State on Tuesday night, and they didn’t need overtime to do it.

Five Braves scored in double figures as they beat the Texans 86-63 in front of the Carver Arena crowd. The home team knocked down 17 threes to tie the second-most made threes in a single game in program history.

“Seventeen as a whole team, that’s crazy,” graduate forward Malevy Leons said.

In the on-campus matchup of the SoCal Challenge, facing a team that stole the ball 11 times, Bradley shot over 60% from the field and beyond the arc to move to 3-0 for the first time since the 2018-19 season.

“I feel like we were sharing the ball and getting everyone open looks,” Leons said. “They played an aggressive style of defense and we just stayed poised and calm under pressure and made our open shots.”

Leons and senior guard Duke Deen had 13 points each while redshirt junior Christian Davis added a career-high 16 in his first start of the year, shooting 6-9 from the field and 4-6 beyond the arc. Freshman guard Demarion Burch tacked on 10 of his own in 13 minutes of his playing time.

Yet, it was freshman forward Almar Atlason who brought the house down, scoring a game-high 18 points behind six made threes.

“I’m just trying to get open,” Atlason said. “My teammates are confident in my shot and so am I and when our ball’s popping like that I get easy shots and today I was knocking them down.”

In just three games at the Division I level, Atlason is already averaging 8.7 points per game on 43% shooting, with all but two of his points coming from 3-point land. Often the first or second option off the bench, the Iceland native is showing his talent early on despite such a big role.

“Al [Atlason] is capable of these games,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “That’s the type of player he is. Very skilled and can really shoot it.”

It took the Braves a while to get going, as they were neck-and-neck with the Texans for the start of the first half. Three 3-pointers, one from Davis, Leons and junior guard Connor Hickman gave Bradley an early lead. Yet, two threes on Tarleton’s end made sure the lead was only four.

The Texans quickly tied it, then took a 14-12 lead on eight straight points from forward KiAndre Gaddy. In the first six minutes, the Braves committed four turnovers and seemed to have trouble moving the ball around on offense, something that was a staple of their first two wins.

“We over-dribbled too much at times tonight and it cost us some turnovers,” Wardle said.

The miscues wouldn’t last long, as Atlason knocked down a corner three off of an assist from senior Darius Hannah to give Bradley the lead again at the 11:13 mark. A Hannah block on the other end led to a transition three from Burch before Atlason hit another long ball two and a half minutes later to bring the Braves’ lead to 10.

When all was said and done, the Braves completed a 14-2 run, with the freshmen accounting for 11 of those 14 points.

“For [freshmen] like Al [Atlason] and Burch to come in and do what they did today against an aggressive team is a great sign,” Wardle said. “You can tell their confidence is growing with their roles and with the veterans out there and [I’m] just proud of where they’re going.”

Now holding a lead, the pace picked up for the Braves as they got easy looks on a Leons dunk, a lob to Hannah and a Davis corner three. Tarleton’s Bubu Benjamin kept his team in it, however, as an and-one following Davis’s three made it 33-22 in favor of Bradley with 5:50 left in the half. The senior forward tied a team-high with 16 points coming off the bench.

Benjamin’s success didn’t stifle the Braves much. A tip-in from Hannah off a Leons miss as well as threes from Deen and redshirt sophomore Emarion Ellis – both off assists from Hannah – kept Bradley on top. Hannah finished with 10 rebounds and six assists, setting new career highs.

“Darius [Hannah] is a really smart big,” Atlason said. “When they’re aggressive like that and he catches it on the short roll he makes great decisions, he has great pace. He was a big factor in us getting open shots.”

The first seven minutes of the second half saw both teams make tough shots, with back-to-back Tarleton layups in traffic giving the Texans some momentum with 13:26 on the clock. That was quickly squashed by none other than Atlason, who made threes on consecutive possessions off assists from Hannah and Burch.

Less than 30 seconds later, Leons got an easy layup to bring the lead to 20, all but ending the Texans’ hopes of a comeback.

“They beat us on the penetration all night, we couldn’t guard the ball,” Tarleton State head coach Billy Gillispie said. “They forced help and then they played the right way and they made shots.”

Bradley was also stout on the defensive end, holding the Texans to 38% shooting and 3-14 from three. The Braves turned the ball over 15 times but scored 25 points off 13 Tarleton turnovers, also adding three blocks off the hand of Hannah.

“I feel like they went one-on-one with us and we try to guard that as a team,” Leons said. “We’re not trying to play their game, we’re trying to play our style and defend them as a team when they go one-on-one.”

“Our offense was pretty deplorable,” Gillispie added. “We played outside in, they played inside out. That’s where you make threes, whether it’s off the dribble or the pass and they did a real good job doing that [and] we did a real poor job doing that.”

The Braves led by as much as 27 after Burch knocked down a three with 6:05 to go. One minute later, Burch came up limping after rolling his right ankle on a baseline drive and was removed from the game. He needed to be helped to the locker room and was unable to put any weight on his foot.

Bradley already lost a guard when transfer Trey Pettigrew left the team on Nov. 6, so losing Burch for any amount of time would leave them thin at the position. While there’s no official diagnosis yet, Leons is optimistic the freshman will be back in no time.

“He’ll be fine,” Leons said. “He’s still young.”

It was a much less stressful game for the Braves following two overtime wins to start the year, with Atlason and the others’ threes proving crucial to victory.

“It’s always different to shoot in a new arena but we get used to it quick[ly],” Atlason said. “Once the game is going you get in a zone where you don’t see really anything but the court and the basket.”

Bradley will continue the SoCal challenge when they take on Tulane on Nov. 20 in California.

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