It’s not secret that Brian Wardle-coached teams make a point to stress defense perennially. However, few times had it been executed as well as the Bradley Braves did on Saturday night, beating Missouri State 58-40 for their first road win of the season in a key conference game.
Springfield, Missouri has historically been a place that the Braves have found it tough to play well in but as the saying goes, defense travels and Bradley found that to be true by grinding down Chance Moore and the Bears’ offense from the opening tip. Now, the Braves are 2-0 to start MVC play for the first time since the 2012-13 season.
“Especially the way we got it, we executed the game plan perfectly,” Bradley junior forward Rienk Mast said. “They scored a total of 40 points and their two main scorers didn’t do much of anything.”
So just how did the Braves execute the game plan, which led them to holding the Bears to their lowest scoring total at home since 1950?
“We just locked in on the players that they had and their tendencies and just sat on that and we protected each other,” Mast said. “We were in gaps so they had nowhere to drive and our weak side help was great from there.”
Mast’s return from a sprained MCL injury has resulted in massive dividends on the defensive end for the Braves. While Mast is not at full strength yet, his presence, alongside the lengthy builds of senior Malevy Leons and junior Darius Hannah, has helped build what’s been a nearly impenetrable wall.
Moore, who came into the game as the MVC leader in field goal percentage (60%), finished with a goose egg in the scoring column and the Bears shot 31 percent as a team with just two made threes on 15 attempts.
“It was a total team effort and the defense definitely won us this game, no doubt,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said.
Since Mast’s return on Nov. 26, the Braves have allowed just under 45 points per game. Bradley’s big man finished Saturday’s contest with 15 points and six rebounds.
“Having [Mast] back obviously is great,” Wardle said. “I thought we managed his minutes well today. He was unfortunately in foul trouble and I think he could’ve had an even bigger game if we could have kept him out of foul trouble in the first half.”
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how the knee has been so far,” Mast added. “Still not 100 percent but I’m getting closer and closer to it and I can help my team win now, which is great.”
The Braves struggled the same way Missouri State did offensively in the game’s opening stages going just one for their first 7. But after being down 6-2 over five minutes into the game, Bradley went on a 12-2 run over the next six minutes, with buckets from five different players, including a rare breakaway slam from sophomore guard Connor Hickman.
While Bradley wasn’t necessarily lighting it up following the run, neither were the hosts. The Bears didn’t reach the 10-point threshold until a James Graham jumper at the 7:30 mark.
Neither team made a 3-pointer until 3:42 before the intermission, when Bradley sophomore guard Christian Davis sank one off the bench to give the Red and White a jolt and a 23-14 lead. Davis and Tahvanainen combined for all 17 of Bradley’s bench points, with nine of them coming in the first half.
After taking a 26-18 lead into the halftime break, the Braves fed Mast early and often in the second half, as three baskets from the Dutch big man boosted their lead to 34-22 with 17:14 to go. He scored 11 of his 15 in the second half, despite picking up his third foul halfway through the frame.
“We obviously had to get Rienk the ball a little bit more inside and we did that in the second half when he wasn’t in foul trouble,” Wardle said.
Missouri State’s Kendle Moore hit the Bears’ first triple of the game at the 15:55 mark and his teammate Bryan Trimble Jr. knocked down a deep ball nearly three minutes later to spark a run. Both buckets came amidst a Bradley drought and the run eventually cut the Braves’ lead to 39-32 near the halfway point of the second after a turnover from Hannah led to a layup from Bears forward Dawson Carper.
Both teams combined for 29 turnovers, with Bradley committing 16 of them.
Further trouble brewed for the Braves when junior point guard Duke Deen, along with Hannah, both picked up their fourth fouls near the midway point of the second half, leaving Hickman, a shooting guard by trade, to run the Braves’ offense and Davis to earn high-leverage time.
However, Davis came up huge for Bradley by corralling a missed 3-pointer from Mast and putting it back in to put Bradley back up by twelve, then sinking a three of his own out of the under-8 media timeout.
“He’s a weapon out there because he can shoot it and he’s long and I thought he was much better defensively in the second half so we needed all those quality minutes,” Wardle said.
“It brought the fire back, that was a big play from him,” Leons added.
Like Davis, Hickman stepped up when needed and distributed the ball superbly throughout the game. He even came within sight of a triple-double with nine assists, eight points and seven rebounds.
“Connor and [Malevy] can impact the game, even if they’re not shooting the ball great,” Wardle said.
When Deen returned to the game, he put two daggers in the Bears’ hearts with 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions just before the final media timeout to put the Braves up 55-36.
“We grinded it out. I don’t think we had one really big run,” Mast said. “You had Duke with the two threes to kind of seal it at the end but overall, just a big grind it out game.”
With the early portion of the MVC schedule now wrapped up, the Braves will stay on the road for the near future, playing at SIU-Edwardsville on Tuesday and No. 11 Arkansas at a neutral site in North Little Rock on Dec. 17.