Following a pair of close wins against Illinois State in overtime and Illinois-Chicago most recently, the Bradley Braves men’s basketball team has figured out a way to finish games.
The difference between those prior contests and Wednesday night’s game against Southern Illinois though was a return to form by the Braves’ vaunted defense, which helped them pull out a 62-52 victory against the Southern Illinois Salukis, who were previously in a two-way tie for the Missouri Valley Conference lead.
Now, Bradley (16-8, 9-4 MVC) has entered the club at 9-4 atop the MVC, alongside SIU, Drake and Belmont, proving why basketball in February is going to be that much more important.
“Overall team effort: that’s what it takes this time of the year in February,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We played a really good team in Southern Illinois and we were able to find a way and get it done.”
The Braves and Salukis locked into a low-scoring game with long, slow possessions on both sides of the ball. With the game tied at 48 with five minutes left to play, Bradley pulled away on a 14-4 run thanks to heightened defensive pressure and a tidy 8-for-8 mark at the free throw line to seal the door shut.
That defensive pressure started with sophomore guard Zek Montgomery, who blocked a shot from SIU’s Troy D’Amico that would’ve brought the visitors to within two with 3:05 to play in the game. 30 seconds afterward, Montgomery converted a layup to give Bradley breathing room, then picked a pass out of midair a few possessions later which denied the Salukis the chance at tying the game with under two minutes to go.
The sophomore finished with 10 points, five rebounds and a pair of steals. After a late turnover that ultimately gave Belmont a win in Peoria, Montgomery learned from that mistake and feels more confident and calm in tight games that Bradley has frequently found themselves in as of late.
“When the game gets tight, I try to focus in a little more and make harder plays, the plays that nobody else would make so just staying mentally focused and staying into the game where my feet are,” Montgomery said.
“He played great down the stretch for us,” Wardle said of Montgomery. “He’s starting to show that he can close games for us. That’s two games in about the last two weeks where he’s getting more confident and we’re more confident in him.”
A Defensive Reawakening
The other star of the show last night was Bradley’s defense, which was ailing after giving up 75 or more points in three straight games. On Wednesday, the Braves’ forced crucial turnovers, rebounded well and held the Salukis to their lowest scoring output in MVC play this season. Holding Valley Player of the Year candidate Marcus Domask to just five points on one made field goal – after he scored 32 in the Salukis’ last game against Illinois State – was a big reason why.
“He’s a hard player to stop,” Wardle said. “He’s a great player and has been in our league for years but I think we had some decent matchups on him with Malevy [Leons] and [Ja’Shon Henry] on him too.”
Henry gave the Braves 24 good minutes, exiting briefly after what appeared to be a lower leg injury but then returning late in the contest. The senior forward layed one in off of a pretty feed from junior point guard Duke Deen with 11:08 to go in the first half that capped off a 9-2 run from the Braves and gave them a 16-11 lead. Later in the first half, he sank three straight Bradley buckets to put them up 24-18.
Leons blanketed Domask for much of the game and gave the Braves huge buckets on the offensive end. A layup off an offensive rebound put Bradley up 43-41 with 8:24 left, then put his team back on top a minute later by streaking toward a wide-open post and slamming home a dunk to put the Braves up 45-43.
Rienk Mast made his contribution by giving the Braves some steam out of the gate, scoring their first seven points. The junior forward also pulled in a crucial offensive rebound – an area in which the Braves held a 12-4 advantage – late in the game and eventually was sent to the line and made both of his free throws to give Bradley a 56-50 lead.
“It was a dogfight,” Deen said. “We have some dogs on our team too. [Malevy Leons] and [Ja’Shon Henry] did a great job on Domask. We just wanted to stop everyone else. We kind of figured he was going to get to his spots and get a couple of buckets.”
Taming the pack
Salukis are a very speedy breed of dog and the ones from Carbondale kept biting at the Braves heels all night. Guards Lance Jones and Jawaun Newton both made important baskets for SIU to keep pace and take small leads in the second half. The lead changed hands 11 times but after a massive 3-pointer from Deen with the shot clock winding down put Bradley up 52-48 with 3:26 to go, the Salukis went 0-3 from the field and committed three turnovers.
“I thought our zone helped us greatly in the last 3 minutes of the game and confused them and slowed the game up and not be able to execute,” Wardle said. “They’re a very good team down the stretch execution-wise.”
Deen’s aforementioned trey, which was initially called a deep 2 before the referees reviewed it and called it a 3-pointer, led to roars of approval from the crowd of 4,817 at Carver Arena, who were instrumental in making things difficult for SIU in crunch time.
After being held scoreless at halftime, the Braves’ point guard scored 10 in the second half. Henry led Bradley with 13 points and Mast added 12 points and nine rebounds for BU.
“If I’ve got space, I’m shooting,” Deen said of his clutch 3-pointer. “I just wanted to make the best play. We have shooters on the floor at all times and [Ja’Shon Henry] and Rienk [Mast] in the post so it’s going to be hard to stop any of us.”
“I stayed positive the whole time,” he added. “[In the Indiana State game], I got down on myself and [against] Belmont here, I got down on myself and coach Mike Black had a talk and he told me that I always gotta stay positive. If I’m not positive, the team isn’t going to be positive because when my energy is down, everyone else stays down.”
The Braves shot 41 percent from the floor against SIU, a good, but not great, number. However, it was enough to manage against one of the top defenses in the MVC perennially in a pound-it-out, low-possession boxing match of two defensive heavyweights.
Bradley did go dark from the field for a three-minute stretch spanning the first and second halves, during which SIU went on a 7-0 run and took a 28-26 lead.
“We didn’t execute offensively very well, honestly,” Wardle said.” We played busted quite a bit but give Southern Illinois credit, their defense can disrupt things but we’ve got to watch [our execution] tomorrow and figure out how we can be better offensively.”
But despite the occasional shooting struggles, the Braves’ report card would likely have an A+ in playing methodically and consistently.
“You’ve just got to keep your head and use it one possession at a time,” Wardle said. “Our highs were never real high and our lows were never low. We just stayed in the middle the whole game and I think that’s a big key when you go into February.”
Wednesday’s win was a big one for the Braves, as they encounter a stretch in which every game carries much weight. Bradley, SIU, Belmont and Drake stand at the top of the mountain for the moment with 9-4 MVC records after Belmont lost by one on the road to rival Murray State while Drake sweated out a double overtime thriller against in-state foe Northern Iowa on Wednesday.
UNI, Missouri State, Murray State and Indiana State make the Valley even crazier. All four teams are 8-4 and can be in eighth place one day and in a tie for first the next.
Up next, the Braves will take on Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls on Saturday at 5 p.m. in a nationally televised game on ESPNEWS. What’s in store for Bradley over the next month before Arch Madness is anyone’s guess, but this one mattered big time for the Braves in their regular season title hunt.
“In February, you either go up or you go down and we’re on the good side of going up right now so I’m proud of the team,” Montgomery said.