Press "Enter" to skip to content

Bradley Braves: Dunk City USA

Darius Hannah throws down a windmill dunk against Illinois State. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics

Bradley senior forward Ja’Shon Henry anticipated a pass from Indiana State’s Cooper Neese to Robbie Avila. Lunging with a hand out to intercept the pass, he took two lengthy dribbles, two big steps and viciously slammed in a dunk on the breakaway to give the Braves a 55-44 lead with 13:55 left in the game.

The jam gave Bradley its largest lead of their MVC Tournament Semifinal game, a heart attack-inducing 71-70 win over the Sycamores to advance to their third Arch Madness title game in five years.

“It’s actually kind of funny, because you don’t really hear the crowd when you’re playing unless you’re going back on defense,” Henry said about the play leading to his dunk. “But when I saw the ball, I actually heard coach [Wardle] scream ‘Dunk it!”

Despite senior forward Malevy Leons making what were possibly two of the most important free throws in the last decade to win the game with 6.2 seconds left, the Braves’ seven dunks gave them seven jolts of energy that energized every person wearing red in the Enterprise Center and ultimately setting the table for their victory.

“It definitely gets the whole team going, brings energy to our huge fan base,” junior forward Darius Hannah said. “Dunking the ball, I mean, it’s our specialty.”

This high-flying Braves team is a revelation of sorts. In previous years, Bradley had played with a more grounded approach on offense, emphasizing drives to the hoop and 3-pointers. The team’s offensive outputs have picked up this year and the Braves have proven they can beat teams in games that more so resemble track meets.

The increased frequency in dunks is a large part of that, with Hannah, Henry and Leons the faces of the Dunk City Braves.

About two minutes before Henry’s monster slam, Hannah set a pick for sophomore guard Connor Hickman, then rolled down towards the hoop as Hickman drove. The latter threw up a lob and Hannah picked it out of the air for an alley-oop that gave Bradley a 49-44 lead.

Bradley’s slams also came at crucial junctures of the game. Facing a 20-12 deficit thanks to a shooting clinic by the Sycamores early in the first quarter, the Braves responded with a 7-0 run that included the first of five dunks from Henry in the afternoon. 

WIth 3:09 to go in the first half and the game knotted at 29, senior guard Ville Tahvanainen found Hannah for another big slam that gave Bradley the lead. Henry made a backdoor cut and found a wide open lane to the hoop with a predictable result before the half that allowed the Braves to go into the locker room with a 35-34 advantage.

That play was the story of the game for the Braves on Saturday. Following a career-high 30 point performance in Friday’s quarterfinal game, Indiana State made it a priority to double team junior forward Rienk Mast every time he touched the ball. Mast ended with a mere two points, but added five assists, most of them leading to dunks by Henry, who was left wide open thanks to the double teams. 

The five assists tied a career-high for Mast. 

“Rienk having tremendous feel and good visuals, he was able to find me down low and everyone was able to find me down low,” Henry said.

“I’ll lose sleep over this one and not maybe going away from the [double team] earlier because I probably could have done that and then maybe the result is different but credit to those guys for what they did,” Indiana State head coach Josh Schertz said.

The pseudo-slam dunk contest among the Braves didn’t end there, as Henry elevated for stuff No. 4 with Sycamores’ forward Cade McKnight and Neese both inches in front of him. The senior’s slam put Bradley up 59-51 with 10:16 to go, then added his final dunk of the day when a double-teamed Mast found him open just over a minute later. 

Each rim-rattler produced a roar from the Bradley crowd in St. Louis – and surely among those who were tuning in on their television sets – making the Braves’ home-away-from-home-advantage even bigger. It’s a double-edged sword: not only do the slams give Bradley energy, they take all the wind out the opposition’s sails.

“It gets everybody going and strikes a little fear,” Hannah said.

Hundreds of Bradley fans cheer on the Braves in warmups. Photo by Matt Lucas.

While thousands saw the Braves produce an entertaining show above the rim on Saturday, a basketball players’ first dunk is often seen by only a few teammates in practice, or even by nobody while playing in their driveway. Bradley’s highest flyers sure remember theirs.

“I think I might have been in eighth grade,” Henry said. “I think I like squeezed a women’s basketbalI. I thought that was cool.”

Hannah and Hickman’s first dunk came in eighth grade as well. What about the first dunk for Bradley head coach Brian Wardle? 

“I didn’t have bounce like these three but I could at least dunk the ball,” Wardle said. “Not in college much, but it was probably around freshman or sophomore year [of high school].” 

“Not like these guys.”

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Copyright © 2023, The Scout, Bradley University. All rights reserved.
The Scout is published by members of the student body of Bradley University. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University.