The Bradley men’s basketball team defeated Loyola-Chicago, 53-51, on Saturday in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinal, one year after the Ramblers sent the Braves home in last year’s semifinal. Junior guard Nate Kennell led all scorers with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, including five 3-pointers.
The Braves held the Larry Bird MVC Men’s Basketball Player of the Year, Marques Townes, to 3-of-17 shooting and seven points. They also held center Cameron Krutwig to six points and senior guard Clayton Custer to 4-of-10 from the field.
“Those two senior guards [Loyola has] are winners and very good players, but this [win] isn’t a shock to us,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “I think it’s only a shock to everybody here. We expected to win this game. We were fully confident in our game plan, if we executed it, that we’d be in position to win, and we just made some big plays.”
The Braves were ready to compete from the opening tip. With tight defense to start the game, there no scoring until the 17:23 remained when Bradley senior Luqman Lundy provided a bit of a spark with a poster dunk over forward Lucas Williamson.
The Braves struggled early and committed 10 turnovers in the first half.
“[We] are both team-defenses out there, guys protecting each other and having each other’s back, so [I knew] it could be a low-scoring game,” Wardle said. “I loved our pace. Even when we were turning the ball over and got a little aggressively wild, I thought we got Loyola playing that way with us.”
Both teams made defensive strides in the first half to
get ahead. In the first half, Loyola stole the ball eight times from Bradley. The Braves recorded seven blocks, three coming from van Bree.
Bradley managed to hold all Loyola players under 10 points, but only Kennell managed to score in double figures. He had 13 for the half.
Loyola ripped off a 9-4 run to get within three, ending the half with Bradley up 25-22. The Ramblers continued the run in the second half and stretched a lead to four points. Both teams improved shooting as Loyola made 6-of-13 in the second stanza and Bradley hit 5-of-13.
When seven minutes remained, junior guard Darrell Brown hit a three to put Bradley up three, 46-43. The shot was Brown’s first basket of the game after going 0-11.
He hit another three with 5:45 left and the shot clock winding down to push the lead to six.
Loyola’s Cooper Kaifes responded with a three of his own immediately. He finished with 14 points going 4-5 from three.
With 1:47 to go, Kaifes again nailed a three to bring Loyola within one, but Kennell responded for the Braves with his biggest three of the night with 1:21.
Townes hit a jumper to get Loyola within two, 53-51. In the play afterward, Brown committed one of his four turnovers, giving Loyola a chance to tie the game.
Townes took a jumper and missed, bouncing off the rim into the hands a Bradley freshman Ja’Shon Henry. He held on to it as time expired, giving Bradley the win.
“I saw Townes was looking to tie the game up and I knew if that goes I had to get this rebound, that was what coach was telling me,” Henry said. “I saw it bounce off the rim and I was able to go get it. I grabbed it with two hands and fell on it [because] I knew there was very little time left.”
Bradley pulled down 13 offensive rebounds and blocked nine shots. Loyola recorded six offensive rebounds and had 31 total for the game.
For Loyola head coach Porter Moser, this was the difference between the two teams.
“Those intangible stats in a one-possession game gave them 13 extra possessions, gave them nine stops at the rim,” Moser said. “Those are intangible stats that were really lopsided. They did a good job blocking shots and offensive rebounding.”
Bradley will move on to face Northern Iowa at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. It is the first time the Braves advanced to the MVC Championship game since 2006. The last time the Braves won the conference tournament was 1988.