Despite a second half surge from Indiana State, Bradley never trailed in the battle for sole possession of third place in the Missouri Valley Conference and emerged victorious 72-61 Wednesday night at Carver Arena.
After the first possession, the Braves didn’t lose the lead until the Sycamores eventually pulled even at 51. ISU senior guard Christian Williams drained a 3-pointer with 9:42 on the clock in the second half, which prompted Bradley head coach Brian Wardle to take a timeout.
The Braves responded with a trey from senior guard Nate Kennell in the corner off an assist from junior forward Elijah Childs, who was double-teamed in the post.
“It was a play to get Eli the ball on the right block,” Wardle said. “We prepared for a post double … I thought Eli just faced-up and they all sunk in, and it looked like a double was running at him and Nate was wide open, so he skipped it.”
“[It was] just staying dialed-in, I mean we’ve been waiting to make some shots, wasn’t making a ton of threes and [I] just knocked one down, and it just gave us a little boost,” Kennell said.
That boost sparked a 5-0 run that set the team up to outscore Indiana State 20-10 in the final 9:21 to slam the door.
“After that, I thought we rolled, I thought we really played defense well and guarded down the stretch and really rebounded well,” Wardle said.
Following Williams’ 3-pointer to tie the game, Bradley didn’t allow a field goal for nine minutes.
The closing defensive stretch was punctuated by back-to-back blocks by 7-foot 1-inch sophomore center Ari Boya on the same Indiana State possession, which sent the crowd of 5,023 into a frenzy. Following the blocks, redshirt-junior guard Danya Kingsby laid it in to extend Bradley’s lead to double figures for the first time on the night.
“We knew we had to lock in on defense and get a couple stops,” Childs said. “Credit to Ari Boya, just being active, blocking shots.”
The pivotal 3-pointer was three of Kennell’s nine second half points in an 11-point night for the senior guard.
Childs’ pass to Kennell was his only tally in the assist column on the evening, but the junior forward lit up the box score, scoring 19 points for the second straight game on 9-15 shooting from the field.
“I was getting in that zone a little bit,” Childs said. “I felt unstoppable, credit to my teammates for finding me.”
“We really didn’t have an answer for Childs tonight,” Indiana State head coach Greg Lansing said. “He was terrific … you give a lot of credit to that dude, he’s a heck of a player.”
Senior Darrell Brown gave Bradley 13 points, his third straight game in double figures. Kingsby also found double-digits, adding 10 points to go with three assists.
Every Brave who checked into the game scored at least four points.
“I thought our bench was really solid today,” Wardle said. “[It] was just a total team effort, a lot of guys made winning plays.”
The refs’ whistles dominated the game, as 18 fouls were called on each team. The second half was especially foul-heavy, with 27 total fouls called in the frame. In a physical game, both teams were forced to adjust to the officials’ calls.
“Attack and adapt … that’s just what you have to do during the game,” Wardle said. “I loved the first half, I think there [was nine] total fouls, and you’ve just got to adapt. You’ve got to adapt as the game goes on.”
“Bradley was very physical. I’m sure it was a hard game to officiate,” Lansing said. “Even NBA guys say how physical the Valley is, but you do what you can get away with.”
The victory puts Bradley in sole possession of third place in the MVC with an 8-5 conference record, one game behind Southern Illinois and Loyola. Bradley will have the opportunity to pull even with the Salukis when they travel to Carbondale on Saturday.
The Braves feel like they’re hitting a stride heading into some pivotal matchups down the stretch, but have yet to reach their peak.
“We’ve got to be playing our best basketball going in February going into Arch Madness,” Childs said. “I think this team is on a run, and we’re getting into a flow.”
“The beauty is with us is we still have room to improve, there’s things we got to clean up and we can even get better at,” Wardle said. “Some teams hopefully maybe have peaked by now, I don’t think we’re peaking even close. We’ve got to clean some things up and keep getting better.”
As for Childs? The Braves’ leading scorer is more than ready for the stretch run.
“I feel alive, man,” Childs said with a smile. “It’s time to go. It’s winning time … I’m ready to give that energy and give that lift to our team that we need.”
Tip-off between Bradley and third-place Southern Illinois is set for 1 p.m. Saturday.