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Bradley escapes Green Wave, heads to championship game

Malevy Leons dunks the ball with emotion. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

In a game that was ultimately won from the free throw line, Bradley men’s basketball (4-0) held strong as Tulane (3-1) looked to break some bad fortune. 

In their first matchup in 10 years, the Green Wave hasn’t tasted victory against Bradley since 1984. The trend continued as the Braves bested the Green Wave 80-77 on Monday. 

The Braves traveled to Southern California for their semifinal matchup in the SoCal Challenge. Played at JSerra Catholic High School, the atmosphere allowed for a closer look at Division One programs from all over the country. 

“I thought I started the first half pretty well, I thought I was aggressive and I thought we got sped up in the second half a little too much but my teammates had my back,” junior Connor Hickman said. “We stayed connected throughout the second half.”

With all of the Braves’ starters reaching double digits in scoring, graduate senior Malevy Leons contributed the most with 18 points and went 7-8 from the free throw line. Senior Darius Hannah was also clinical from the field, going 6-7 and coming out with six rebounds. 

Bradley started off lethargic as they trailed early 12-7 with 15:34 to go. Fouls and trips to the free throw line were a constant theme as the teams had a combined 45 fouls throughout the night. 

“Just in the beginning we were trying to feel out the basket, the shots weren’t really falling,” Leons said.

After sustaining an injury earlier in the season, Tulane’s Jaylen Forbes was active all night, putting up 17 points and going 8-11 from the charity stripe. Additionally, Kevin Cross and Sion James both scored 14 points and put up 10 rebounds between them. 

One of the big question marks left after the past couple of games for the Braves was their inefficiency from the free throw line. Monday night’s game answered that question. 

Going 8-10 from the charity stripe in the first half and shooting 72 percent overall, Bradley kept pace with the Green Wave, resulting in multiple ties and lead changes. Leons was instrumental in the Braves’ defense and also leveled the game at 23-23 with 6:12 left in the first half after a layup. 

The Braves stumbled once again as the Green Wave found its tide soon after, developing their biggest lead of the half 31-25 with 3:43 left. The Braves remained aggressive throughout, putting high pressure on defense. 

“They’re athletic, they’re talented scorers… and we made some big plays, made some big shots when we needed to,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. 

Once again, Leons came to the rescue as he converted a second chance jumper to give the Braves a short 35-34 lead. A chain reaction was set as Hickman responded with a 3-point jumper of his own and Hannah compounded the damage with a hookshot that gave the Braves their biggest lead in the half at 40-34 with 52 seconds left. 

Tulane churned out two more free throws, leaving for the locker rooms down 40-36. 

The second half was just as even as the first, yielding four ties and a couple of lead changes to go with it. Both teams continued to play with the intensity of a mid-February game as they went back-and-forth to start the half. 

Junior Christian Davis came up big on multiple plays as he was the Braves’ main source of rebounds, returning seven and going 3-4 from the field. 

As the game progressed, Bradey looked more comfortable and confident, shooting a lot more freely and passing the ball with ease. Still, turnovers continued to hurt the Braves. 

“[During the] second half when we didn’t turn the ball over, I thought we had some great possessions. Just the turnovers hurt us in the second half,” Wardle said. “I thought the zone helped us a little bit, it kept them out of the foul line.”

Coming off a 9-1 run, senior Duke Deen gave the Braves their biggest lead of the game from beyond the arc as the Louisiana native orchestrated a pull-up jumper to put Bradley up 72-62 with 5:41 left in the second half. Deen added 13 points across both halves and also added four assists to his stat sheet. 

With the score at 77-71 and three minutes left in the semifinal matchup, the Braves had to hold on as Tulane made their final wave. Tulane marched onwards with a 6-2 run that left the game within three points. With less than a minute left, a couple of Leons free throws proved to be vital as the game ended on a missed three from Tulane’s Kolby King. 

The Braves have their final test of the SoCal challenge as they face off against UTEP on Wednesday in the championship game. With these two games in such close proximity, the Braves already know the path moving forward. 

“We’ll have a beach walkthrough and then watch a lot of film and get our bodies ready for Wednesday,” Wardle said. “We’re going to be battle tested on Wednesday again so we need some recovery now and preparation.”

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