Bradley men’s basketball is headed back to the NCAA tournament after defeating Valparaiso 80-66 on Sunday afternoon to claim the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title for the second consecutive year. The back-to-back titles mark the first time in program history that the Braves have repeated as MVC champion.
“A lot of adversity we’ve been through this year to be in this position,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “The belief was always there in that locker room. I’m so happy for our seniors that they were able to do this again and repeat it. A lot of people thought we got lucky last year, and we knew that wasn’t the case.”
After Bradley opened up a 12-4 lead in the first minutes of the game, Valparaiso closed the gap with a 6-0 run. The Crusaders would eventually claim their first lead of the contest with 1:41 to go in the half, and took a 38-36 lead into the locker room.
Valpo’s 3-pointers were the Braves’ Achilles heel, as the Crusaders made seven deep balls in the first half on their way to shooting 50 percent in the frame.
Out of the locker room, Valparaiso initially maintained their advantage as Bradley’s large fan contingent grew increasingly restless.
After the game was tied at 40, the Crusaders extended the lead to six, 48-42 with 14 minutes to go in the game. Nearly every big bucket from the Braves was matched by Valpo.
Bradley fought back to tie the game back up at 49 two minutes later, thanks to a mid-range shot from senior Darrell Brown.
After the Crusaders pulled ahead again, senior Nate Kennell hit another tying bucket to knot the game at 51. Shortly after, the Braves went on a 7-0 run to pick up their first lead of the second half and created some separation. The run burgeoned into a 16-2 stretch, allowing Bradley to pull away for good.
“Once we got comfortable into the game, I feel like everybody stepped up,” junior forward Elijah Childs said. “We knew we could do something special, and we knew we could lock in and win this.”
After a plethora of fouls, free throws and “MVP” chants for Brown, the buzzer sounded, and the student section rushed the court in jubilation for the second year in a row.
Brown did indeed have an MVP-caliber performance, posting 21 points and nine assists. After averaging 21.6 points and seven assists per game, he was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
“It was special, man. It’s something you see on 2K … When your player going off, you get the MVP chants,” Brown said. “It don’t even feel real right now, it’s a blessing to be back here and being able to win this game again is special.”
After thriving with the three in the first half, Valpo’s deep shooting went dormant in the second half, as the ‘Saders went just 3-13 in the second frame, including six consecutive misses down the stretch.
The difference? Bradley’s switch to a zone at halftime, which stifled a Valpo team that was playing its fourth game in four days.
“We did it the very last possession of the half, got a stop. I liked what I saw, how they were trying to attack it,” Wardle said. “They’ve got five guys on the floor at times that can shoot it. So they’re hard to guard, and you’re chasing them around a lot. Third game in three days, it’s hard to guard.”
“I think the [3-2 zone] slowed them down a little bit,” Childs said. “You know they [were] running, they [were] getting it down in transition a lot. I think they kinda got confused.”
The Braves’ winning effort was evenly distributed throughout the box score.
Childs was right behind Brown with 17 points and eight rebounds, and fellow big man sophomore Ja’Shon Henry added 16 points and seven boards. Sharpshooters Kennell and freshman Ville Tahvanainen rounded out the double-digit scorers, scoring 14 and 10 points respectively.
In addition to Brown being named M.O.P., Childs was also named to the all-tournament team. In the Braves wins over SIU, Drake and Valpo, Childs averaged 14.6 points with 8.3 rebounds per game.
Bradley is the ninth Valley team to successfully defend its tournament title and the first since Northern Iowa in 2016. It is the first time that the Braves have made back-to-back NCAA tournaments since 1954-55.
They’ll now wait until next Sunday, when the full NCAA tournament bracket is released and the Braves’ opponent is determined.