Typically, Bradley men’s basketball is the team knocking down shots in Carver Arena.
But on Saturday, when Indiana State came into town, it was the Sycamores who came out firing.
Boasting the 14th-best scoring offense in the country coming into the game, Indiana State (7-1) made 14 threes to hand the Braves (6-2) their second straight loss and their first loss at home since Jan. 21. A 19-point first-half lead and five double-digit scorers helped them beat Bradley 85-77, winning their first game in Peoria since 2018.
“They killed us in transition in the first half and then it was raining threes after that,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “Got screened too much, didn’t talk very well, and then let that affect our offense.”
The Braves struggled to make their shots in this one, shooting 42% in the first half and under 45% for the game. They also committed 10 first-half turnovers, which led to many of the transition points.
In contrast to their offense during the Braves’ 6-0 start to the season, Bradley ran a lot of one-on-one plays and took many bad shots, according to Wardle. For the second straight game, the team was down by double digits at halftime.
“We just can’t dig ourselves these holes,” Wardle said. “These holes are too big against these good teams.”
For the Sycamores, former Brave Jayson Kent turned in a double-double in his return to Peoria while sophomore big man Robbie Avila led with 22 points and nine rebounds. With his ability to stretch the floor and create opportunities for his teammates, Avila provided a matchup nightmare for the Braves the entire game.
“He’s a different player and he changes everything,” Wardle said. “Passing, dribbling, he’s crafty. He’s a throwback big man that’s really hard to guard because he’ll hit some threes on you too.”
The Braves were led by senior forward Malevy Leons (18 points, nine rebounds) and junior guard Connor Hickman (17 points). Hickman went down with a left ankle injury in the second half and did not return to the game, needing to be helped to the locker room by trainers. His status is still being evaluated, according to Wardle.
Senior guard Duke Deen shot 4-16 on the day, bringing his season’s percentage to under 30. He took almost a third of the Braves’ first-half shots and went 2-8 from three, but Wardle is okay with Deen’s shot selection and his attempts to build up confidence in his shooting.
“He’s gotta believe in his shot,” Wardle said. “Everybody goes through highs and lows in the season, but we need him and we need Malevy and all these guys to trust their stroke and trust the 3-point shooting.”
Deen also added a team-high four assists but had three of the Braves’ 12 turnovers, something Wardle is not pleased with.
“I care about the turnovers the most,” Wardle said. “Time and score decision making has got to continue to get better with all our premier guys.”
Another area Wardle stressed was the bench, as only freshman guard Demarion Burch and sophomore center Ahmet Jonovic scored out of the second unit. Burch’s eight points and Jonovic’s two were all the bench could muster.
“I really played only five or six guys in the second half, and that’s where we need our bench to be better,” Wardle said. “Our freshmen gotta play like juniors and seniors now, especially in the Valley play.”
Bradley made a spirited comeback attempt in the second half, even winning the period, but it ended up being too little, too late.
“It’s basketball, there’s always going to be ups and downs,” junior Christian Davis said. “We believe in each other, we believe in this program as a winning program, and we’ve shown this year that we can win and we’re just gonna get back to that formula and keep making it happen.”
Trees drain threes
Kent got revenge on the Braves early, as he opened the game’s scoring with a one-handed jam. That started a back-and-forth affair to begin the contest, as the Sycamores answered every Bradley bucket with one of their own on the next possession.
Leading 10-9, Indiana State went on a quick 5-0 run to extend their lead, then a Xavier Bledson three made it 20-13 with 11:47 left in the first half. After both teams started the game 4-6 from the field, Bradley shot 1-7 while the Sycamores shot 4-7 over the ensuing stretch.
“Props to them, they made some tough shots,” Leons said.
The Braves followed Indiana State’s run with one of their own, as layups from Leons and Jonovic plus a Deen three tied things at 20 at the 10-minute mark.
From that point on, the Sycamores took over.
Indiana State went on a 29-10 run to end the half, shooting over 50% from three in the period. At one point, the Sycamores made five straight threes, finishing with 10 in the half.
“We just gotta defend that better,” Leons said.
Braves battle back
Something that Wardle has stressed is his team’s resiliency, and that was on display in the back half of Saturday’s game after they were booed heading into the locker room.
Bradley ripped off a 10-2 run to start the second frame, culminating in a Hickman corner three that reignited the Carver Arena crowd and caused Indiana State to take a timeout less than two minutes into the half.
“We heard the boos,” Wardle said. “Thank you fans. That motivated my team big time at halftime.”
“Probably deserved to be booed because we haven’t played like that in years in this building [Carver Arena], and we’ve won a lot of games in this building so our fans aren’t used to seeing that type of half by us,” Wardle added. “Those boos got them revved up and I thought we came out in the second half more aggressive, more confident, more in attack mode.”
The Sycamores were able to extend their lead to 18 again, in large part due to their pump fakes that caused Bradley defenders to leave their feet which freed up an open shooter. After giving up nearly 60% shooting in the first half, the Braves wanted to make sure they wouldn’t be burned again and ended up jumping more on the defensive end.
They did clean up the turnovers, however, forcing eight out of Indiana State while committing only two of their own in the second half.
“We just started to be more aggressive and it just happened as a result,” Davis said.
Indiana State matched their largest lead of 19 with 11:05 to go, but Bradley churned out a 12-0 run over the next 2:16 to cut the lead to single digits for the first time since the 4:56 mark of the first half.
The Braves tried to use the momentum to their advantage, getting the lead to as low as six, but their first-half deficit proved too much to overcome. They outscored the Sycamores 47-36 in the second half.
“We just kind of ran out of gas,” Wardle said. “When we had it to a two-possession game we had shots to go to one possession, I thought if we could do that we could get the crowd going and maybe find a way to figure this one out in the end but we just could never make those big shots.”
If the Braves hope to stay atop the MVC come season’s end, they have their work cut out for them. Since 1965, only one Bradley team has started 0-2 in conference play and gone on to finish in the top two of the MVC. With how competitive the Valley is this year, becoming the second will be a tall task.
“Still gotta get better and still a lot of basketball left for us,” Leons said. “Just gotta take it a game at a time and go win some games in the non conference.”
Bradley travels to Akron to take on the Zips on Tuesday, so they will need to quickly put the last two games behind them.
“We have a very good chance to show the character of this team,” Davis said. “That’s all it is, just get back to work and get back on track.”