It has been the epitome of Bradley basketball’s three most recent games after the Braves (7-9) saw a 16-point second half lead at Loyola Chicago evaporate into a 78-71 overtime loss.
“We handed that one to them on a platter,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “That’s frustrating.”
Similar to the Braves’ 76-71 loss against Indiana State and 71-69 buzzer-beating defeat against Missouri State earlier in the week, opposing star players sank huge 3-pointers late in the game, all of which were daggers to Bradley’s hopes of victory.
First, it was Cooper Neese, who’s off-balance shot from deep found the net with 12 seconds left to seal a Sycamore victory. Then, Missouri State’s all-MVC guard Isiaih Mosley broke hearts with a fadeaway triple as time expired to escape a Braves comeback.
This time, Loyola guard Lucas Williamson, a fellow all-MVC selection, erupted in the second half and overtime, scoring all 20 of his points in that span to lead a comeback charge inside a rowdy Gentile Arena.
Following a 21-7 scoring run near the end of the first half, Bradley went into halftime with a 33-29 lead. The Braves knew better than anyone else that another full 20 minutes of good basketball was necessary to end the Rambler’s 28-game winning streak at home.
The Braves came out of the intermission hot, torching Loyola on a 12-2 run before the first media timeout. Two 3s from junior guard Ville Tahvanainen capped off the run, which caused the Bradley bench to go raucous and the Loyola crowd to quiet. The barrage from deep was a complete reversal of the Braves’ fortunes earlier in the game, going 6 for 10 from 3-point range after starting 0 for 6.
“We moved the ball well and guys were just sharing the ball, [doing] one more pass,” Braves sophomore forward Rienk Mast said. “That’s how we can play. We’ve got to be unselfish and knock down those shots and I think in that segment, we knocked down our shots but the rest of the game, we were kind of struggling from three.”
Graduate guard Mikey Howell converted a layup with 13:49 left to inflate the Braves’ lead to 50-34 but as any MVC basketball fan would expect, the Ramblers wouldn’t stay down for long.
Williamson and senior forward Tate Hall initiated Loyola’s attempt to respond, combining for nine points in a three-minute span to make it 52-45 Bradley midway through the second half. The bucket came in the middle of a stretch where the Ramblers made seven shots in a row without a miss between the 13:33 and 9:07 marks in the last half.
“This is competitive Missouri Valley [Conference] basketball,” Wardle said. “No lead is safe. All we talked about in timeouts is they’re going to keep pushing at us.”
Despite a clutch “hoop and harm” from Mast with seven and a half minutes left to play, Bradley continually took one step forward and two steps back, falling victim to the familiar enemies of turnovers, missed free throws and allowing offensive rebounds.
“This is our sixth loss like this this year,” Wardle said. “Missed free throws are killing us too, we gave up some huge [offensive rebounds] and a lot of those can be on mental mistakes too.”
The Loyola comeback reached its peak with 1:38 remaining in regulation and the Ramblers down 64-60 when Williamson improbably converted on a deep ball while getting fouled by Bradley sophomore forward Jayson Kent. Forwards Chris Knight of the Ramblers and Mast of the Braves traded layups to tie the game at 66 heading into overtime.
“When you’re up four with two minutes to go, it’s defensive discipline coming into play and don’t let them score over you or rebound the ball,” Wardle said. “Honestly, I don’t think we did a smart job of who we could’ve helped off of when [Williamson] got the ball and he punished us for that.”
Like his teammate Williamson, Knight was held scoreless in the first half before dropping in 14 points in the second stanza. Mast put up a career-high 20 points to go with seven rebounds.
After a controversial no-call on a physical layup attempt from Loyola right before the buzzer sounded in regulation, the Braves struggled to turn the tide in overtime, starting 0-4 from the field to go with two missed free throws from senior guard Terry Roberts.
“I had no idea [if the no-call was correct], I’d have to watch the film,” Wardle said. “But I do know this: we gave up an offensive rebound and we would’ve had the last shot if we just rebounded the ball.”
Roberts was held to his second straight game with a single-digit output, scoring eight before fouling out in overtime. Kent joined Mast as the only other BU player in double digits with 13.
Neither team had made a field goal in the overtime period until a corner three from Williamson found nylon to put Loyola ahead 72-69 with 58 seconds left. Attempting to respond in the same manner, Kent missed a 3 on the Braves’ next possession and Williamson went a perfect six-for-six from the free throw line as the Ramblers ran out the clock en route to victory.
An experienced Loyola team, which features seven seniors including Williamson and Knight, simply committed less mistakes and played smarter than the more youthful Braves in crunch time.
“I think we played really well for about 30 minutes and then we started fouling a little bit too much and they started getting to the free throw line and putting their head down and going full speed,” Wardle said. “We over-helped a couple times, we [double-teamed] a couple times, we fouled a three-point shooter. Mentally, we’ve got to play smarter.”
From the under-eight minute media timeout until the game’s end, Loyola went 15-18 from the free throw line while Bradley went five-for-nine from the stripe in that same stretch. 10 of the Rambler’s points in the second half and overtime came after snagging offensive rebounds, including Williamson’s go-ahead 3-pointer in overtime. The Braves’ depth was also tested, as their bench was outscored 33-13 and senior forward Ja’Shon Henry missed his fifth consecutive game with a head injury.
The loss for Bradley is their fifth straight to the Ramblers, who are the favorites to win the MVC after a win against fellow mid-major power San Francisco on Thursday and currently hold the No. 19 spot in the NCAA’s NET rankings.
“We’re in every game, we can play with anyone and [the players] know that,” Wardle said. “We have the talent in the room; we don’t have the experience but we have the talent.”
Bradley encountered adversity early on, going down 20-12 in the first half while struggling to get high quality shots off against Loyola’s stifling defense. While the Braves’ team a few months ago may not have responded as well to an early deficit, the Red and White put Loyola on their heels after freshman guard Connor Hickman capped off an 11-2 Braves run with a three-point play to take a 23-22 lead.
However, Bradley’s most recent showing proved that responding to early adversity isn’t an issue anymore; it’s closing out games instead, something that the Braves are aware of. Still, the mindset of being able to beat anyone is ingrained in their heads.
“Going into this week, we knew we were able to play two of the top teams in [the MVC] so we knew what we were in for,” Mast said. “We were very tough both games and after both games, we felt like we let it slip. We don’t know how to close out games yet and that does come with experience and age. Good teams and losses don’t add up so we’ve got to get some wins.”
The Braves return to Carver Arena on Wednesday at 7 p.m. to face off against Evansville.