After Bradley opened up a 16-4 lead to start Wednesday night’s game at Illinois State, it would have been easy to write off the underdog Redbirds.
From that point forward, however, a switch was flipped inside Redbird Arena and Illinois State took over, riding hot shooting and an energetic bench to a 71-56 victory.
“We let our emotions get too high, we didn’t stay level-headed,” senior forward Elijah Childs said. “Once shots weren’t falling, we let our [defense] go out the window.”
“It was a pathetically terrible start,” Illinois State head coach Dan Muller said. “Bradley did not have its best night, clearly, but once our players locked in and understood what we were trying to attack… we had more awareness.”
Entering the halftime locker room, the Braves held a 31-30 lead, capitalizing on holes in Illinois State’s zone defense which led to 22 points in the paint in the half. The effort down low was largely led by senior Elijah Childs, who scored 12 points in the frame.
After 20 more minutes of play, it was a different story. The Braves were only able to score eight points in the lane and Childs was limited to two points by an all-of-a-sudden stingy Redbirds defense.
“They absolutely did close [the zone] up,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We struggled because we weren’t making shots on the perimeter.”
The poor shooting in the post paired with 26 percent shooting from 3-point range ultimately resulted in a second half meltdown.
After the two teams traded buckets after the halftime break, Illinois State rattled off a 14-3 run to burgeon the lead to 17 and send the home bench into a frenzy.
“They were over there ‘rah rah’ing’ and gave great energy,” Childs said. “I think our bench did a pretty good job, but it’s all about the people on the court talking and giving energy themselves.”
In a rivalry that usually thrives off of crowd energy, the noise from the bench was generally the only noise that reverberated throughout the arena – and it all came from the ISU side.
“You don’t have fans and usually that matters right now in these games” Wardle said. “We’ve been in those games on the other side of things … We’ve got to do a better job there, too.”
Not only were the Braves without fan support on the road, but they were without junior forward Ja’Shon Henry, who missed the game with a head injury.
The Canadian post player averages just over 10 points per game off the bench. As a result of the absence, Bradley’s reserves scored a combined 15 points.
“We definitely missed him today,” Childs said. “He brings that energy off the bench, he brings that scoring and rebounding and defending off the bench.”
Childs led the Braves with a 14-point, 11-rebound double-double as the only Bradley player in double figures. The Redbirds received a 23-point outing from sophomore guard DJ Horne and 14 point game from freshman Josiah Strong.
Even without the usual depth and relatively young lineup, Wardle says there are no excuses for the loss to the I-74 rival.
“Our defense was not good enough…our effort lacked at times” Wardle said. “We are extremely young, but I still demand a better effort and better execution. I don’t care if there’s freshmen or sophomores on the court the whole time, we’ve got to be better than what we were tonight.”
Bradley, now 9-5 and 3-2 in Missouri Valley Conference play, will have a quick turnaround as they take on Loyola-Chicago on Sunday and Monday at home at Carver Arena.
“We hopefully have learned a lesson and been humbled in some areas,” Wardle said. “Of all our losses this year, this was the first where I don’t think we competed or played Bradley basketball.”