When seniors Koch Bar, Nate Kennell and Darrell Brown arrived in Peoria the summer of 2016, the Braves were coming off a 5-27 season in head coach Brian Wardle’s first year. That trio has now won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in back-to-back years for the first time in Bradley history and has made it to the Big Dance in back to back seasons for just the second time ever (1954-55).
The women’s basketball team also has a trio of seniors in Chelsea Brackmann, Ryan Wilkins and Amber Bozeman. That team earned at least an WNIT berth and had improved the team’s overall record for four years under head coach Andrea Gorski.
Except it won’t happen and there will be no dancing across the country. The NCAA has cancelled all winter and spring sports championships.
Each of the players on both teams brought something different – rebounding, 3-point shooting, defense, passing, leadership – and for that the Bradley faithful are thankful.
Gorski was also thankful for the work her team nicknamed “Squad45” put forth. Her team wanted to make history in the postseason.
“It’s hard for seniors when you don’t really know that you could be playing your last game, but I think we have a level headed team,” Gorski said. “Our seniors are going to do really well in life for sure, hard working, and we’ll still cherish this season and what we were able to accomplish.”
When Brown, a 5-foot 10-inch point guard, checked out and hugged nearly the entire bench, “Carver Arena South” erupted. He earned Most Outstanding Player and proved that he should have been first team all-MVC, an award he didn’t get at the end of the regular season. In the championship game against Valparaiso, Brown netted 21 points and assisted on nine scores for the Braves.
During the on-court celebration, Brown said that the victory is a testament to how far the program has come.
“It’s been special, man,” Brown said. “It took many bad losses, had some great wins, and it’s just nice seeing the hard work pay off and the new guys following along.”
Each player of the male trio increased their production from their junior seasons; Kennell increased scoring output from 9.3 to 12.5, Brown elevated his average of 3.2 assists per game to 4.7, Bar pulled down 7.1 rebounds per game, increased from last years 4.3.
The women also made a difference although two played limited minutes and Brackmann was sidelined with a chronic illness for multiple games. Wilkins scored a career-best 1.7 points per game while Bozeman increased her average from 0.2 points to 2.1 per contest. Brackmann, a captain, led with vocal leadership scoring 11.0 points and pulling down 8.5 rebounds per game.
These Braves had experience last season and were composed throughout much of the tournament, not faltering when opponents made runs. Bar said that the team followed the footsteps of Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye and Luuk van Bree, two four year seniors who were big parts of the rebuild. The success is a credit to the vision in the Bradley locker room.
“It means we bought into what Coach Wardle put in front of us,” Bar said. “It was like the recruiting process. He got that vision for this program, what he want to do with it, and we just came in and just bought into the culture, and we just took from there.”
In 2016-17, the team gave up 70.7 points per game and scored 65.5. Flash forward four years and those numbers are swapped, with the Braves scoring 71.7 allowing 65.9. When it comes to turnovers, the Braves averaged 15.1 but now only 11.8. Bradley no longer allows 2.3 more points off turnovers to opponents rather now score 1.7 more per game.
The male trio has certainly brought the program back to relevancy and junior Elijah Childs was happy to be a part of it.
“Bradley is back to where it was previously, it fell off for a couple years, but with Darrell Brown, Koch Bar, Nate Kennell, [these] guys changing this program,” Childs said. “The guys from last year changing this program just teaching us these young guys, teaching me that hard work pays off.”
Wardle echoed Childs’ statement, saying that the Braves didn’t get lucky last year and they can play with anyone.
“I’m so happy for our seniors that they were able to do this again and repeat it,” Wardle said. “They were on a mission to come out this weekend to prove that [we weren’t fortuitous], and we were able to do that.”
After March Madness was officially canned Wardle said he texted the team and apologized that they couldn’t play in the tournament. He said the team understood the decision and that it was out of their control.
“I wanted to go to battle with this group and these three seniors, but not many teams get to end their year cutting the nets down and holding up trophies,” Wardle said. “We are going to look at the positive of this and how we performed again this year and how we improved as a program … and I couldn’t be prouder of the group.”
Brown, Bar and Kennell leave a legacy on the Hilltop and grew immensely according to men’s basketball alumnus Luqman Lundy, a player who was on the team from 2017-19. That leadership was showcased throughout the season, with each taking over the game at times.
The legacy is also left by Brackmann who leaves as the program’s all-time leading rebounder.
Hard work paid off for the six seniors and they will be ready to shine in life.
“Our seniors will have great memories and we’ll talk about this season in a positive way,” Gorski said. “They are great student-athletes and they have a lot to look forward to.”