They say all good things eventually come to an end, and that rang true on Wednesday night as Bradley men’s basketball dropped their first game of the season 79-72 to the Murray State Racers.
In their Missouri Valley Conference opener, the Braves (6-1) continued to struggle from the free throw line, while the Racers’ (3-4) defensive efforts and immaculate execution from that same line broke their three-game losing streak.
“They outplayed us today, they were tough on defense and they were better offensively and we got to step it up if we want to win games in the Valley like that,” graduate senior Malevy Leons said.
The Racers didn’t waste any time running down the court with fury and determination, which contributed to 15 total points from fast breaks. While Murray State was always on the front foot, Bradley never looked comfortable, lacking a confidence that’s been a staple up to this point in the season.
“We could be 4-2 or 3-3, six to 10 possessions we could be way different,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We know we can get beat by anybody, we weren’t going to go undefeated, we’re not that type of team and hopefully we can learn a lot from here.”
While the Racers are in just their second season in the MVC, this matchup marks the second time the Braves have stumbled at CFSB Arena. Bradley fell to the Racers 67-58 in Murray State’s home gym last season.
“They just wanted it more, and they took advantage of that,” senior Darius Hannah said.
With recent history looming large, the Racers looked alert and played a smart brand of basketball. Setting the scene with a 9-2 run, Murray State constantly attacked the paint after being fed early turnovers. Defensively, the Racers swarmed the Braves, forcing bad passes for three consecutive turnovers in that run.
In that time, the Braves went silent for three minutes until junior Connor Hickman buried a shot from the corner, his first three of the night. Hickman deposited 11 points throughout the night, going 3-7 from beyond the arc.
With 16:07 to go, Bradley needed size and strength, which they got from sophomore Ahmet Jonovic on the court, as he went toe-to-toe against the Racers’ own big men. Jonovic went 5-8 from the field, putting up 11 points for the Braves.
Bradley started to find their stride as senior Duke Deen tied the game at 16 from the charity stripe following a Murray State technical foul with 10:59 left in the half. The Braves found their way to the line, but could not seize the opportunity like their opponents. They went 20-26 from nine feet in front of the rim, while the Braves went 9-17.
The Racers countered with a six-point run with 4:06 left in the first half. Another scoring drought would plague the Braves before they left for the locker rooms down 42-32.
“When we did have open looks, we turned them down. Sometimes guys weren’t ready to shoot,” Wardle said.
While Leons found his way around the Racers defense in the first half, the home team adjusted to limit Leons to three points, a sharp contrast from his 11 in the first. Murray State’s Rob Perry and JaCobi Wood were constant threats throughout the night, each putting up 19 points.
“Both aggressive guards, the goal was to stop them right away, but they came up hot in tough shots,” Hannah said.
After Bradley went 2-11 from the three-point line in the first half, redshirt junior Christian Davis took the ball near the Bradley bench and buried his 3-pointer, bringing the game within five with 10:27 left.
So close, yet so far was the case for the Braves as they brought the game within two possessions, but could never get past that hump. A hookshot from redshirt sophomore Emarion Ellis once again brought the game in arm’s reach, but with 4:12 to go, the Racers never looked worried.
“The second half went better because we controlled it as coaches more, we controlled what we ran, we slowed it down cause the turnovers were killing us in the first half,” Wardle said. “We just could never find our rhythm.”
As the clock ran out, Hannah turned on the afterburners, putting up eight of the Braves’ last 11 points. Despite their first loss of the season, Hannah was a bright spot throughout the game, leaving with his first career double-double: 19 points and 10 rebounds.
There won’t be much time to rest for the Braves as they return to Peoria to face the Indiana State Sycamores, who will stroll into Carver Arena with a 6-1 record themselves. The Sycamores are coming off a substantial 77-48 victory over Southern Illinois.
“They were good last year, they’re good this year, we’ve got our hands full, every Valley game is going to be like this,” Wardle said. “So we need everyone there Saturday, we’re going to need that energy if we can get it.”