Bradley men’s basketball’s season came to an end on Thursday following a 76-65 loss to No. 2 seed Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Bradley hung with the Big Ten champions for the whole contest until the final few minutes.
“There was just around the six to four minute mark, where we had some opportunities with some good looks and they didn’t go down,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “[Michigan State] closed the game out and made some big plays.”
Michigan State guard and Big 10 Player of the Year Cassius Winston led all scorers with 26 points. Sophomore forward Elijah Childs led the Braves with 19 points and six rebounds, followed by a 17-point seven-assist performance by junior Darrell Brown.
The Braves opened the game strong and set the tone, pulling out to a 10-4 lead in the first four minutes. Michigan State responded with a 9-0 run of their own to get on top 13-10 with 12:53 to go.
“We were right there the entire time,” junior Nate Kennell said. “We really just showed our toughness and our heart for 35 minutes of the game. It just shows what we really have in this locker room.”
The two teams remained neck and neck throughout the entire first half, which ended 35-34, in favor of Bradley. Bradley outrebounded Michigan State 19-13 and held them to 2-10 from beyond the arc.
The second half started off with a jump shot, block and dunk by Childs. But the Spartans went on a 10-2 run, extending their lead to 44-39.
Michigan State seemed to have the game under control until Bradley went on an 8-0 run in 50 seconds to take a one-point lead, 51-50, with 11 minutes to go in the game.
During the sequence, senior Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye hit a three and Brown stole the inbound pass and laid it in. On the next Bradley possession, Brown hit a three to put the Braves back in the game.
Once again, the two teams exchanged leads. Michigan State turned the ball over eight times in the second half allowing Bradley to stay in the game. Wardle said he wanted to the team to play fast despite committing 10 turnovers of their own.
“We wanted to get up and down,” Wardle said. “I thought the transition defense was good for both teams. We had our opportunities on defense I thought we’d capitalize on. It just became two good defensive teams getting back and in transition and getting half-court defense set.”
Both teams struggled to shoot throughout the game and Bradley suffered in the last two minutes of the game as Michigan State went on an 8-0 run to pull ahead and ice the game.
Bradley fouled multiple times, but the Spartans hit 25 of their 26 free throws. The Braves and Spartans finished with 40 combined fouls, 22 and 18 respectively.
“We couldn’t make the lay-ups we had,” senior Luqman Lundy said. “They made every free throw but one. Credit to them. They executed down the stretch. I feel like for 30 minutes, we had them.”
According to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, the Braves came out strong and complemented Childs on his performance. His point of focus was to stop Kennell and Brown from scoring.
“Bradley played better than I’ve seen them play this year. That’s a great tribute to Brian and his team and what they did,” Izzo said. “They have really good athletes. Those guards [Lautier-Ogunleye] and Lundy drive it right. They know where they’re going.”
The game was the final time for five players to put on the Bradley uniform. For seniors Luqman Lundy, Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, Peter Hanley, Luuk van Bree and redshirt junior Antoine Pittman, the loss was bittersweet.
“We couldn’t have done this without everyone being together and helping each other out,” Lautier-Ogunleye said. “It’s lovely to see because the position in the program was very low when I arrived and now as a senior leaving and the position it is now is just a dream come true.”
After the loss, Bradley’s record falls to 20-15. The loss ended a 10-game win streak for the Missouri Valley Conference in the first round of the NCAA tournament.