The last time Bradley men’s basketball won a regular season tournament, they beat UTEP to win the Sun Bowl Invitational in 2021.
Almost two years to that day, the Braves beat UTEP (5-1) again to win the SoCal Challenge and move to 5-0 for the first time since the 2006-07 season. Bradley’s stingy defense and 11-point halftime lead held off the unbeaten Miners 63-59, repeating the result from the two teams’ last meeting.
Senior forward Malevy Leons was a part of that 2021 team along with junior guard Connor Hickman, senior forward Darius Hannah and walk-on juniors Cade Hardtke and Sam Hennessy. Those five players were 0-5 in Thanksgiving MTE (multi-team event) games heading into the SoCal Challenge, but they now head out of it 5-0 on the year.
“It’s a special feeling just seeing how we matured over three years and how it changed both me and Hick[man]’s role since we started three years ago,” Leons said. “Just special to win another tournament.”
Their championship-winning feat was in large part due to the contributions of these returners, as Hickman finished with a game-high 16 points while Leons’ 13-point, six-rebound performance earned him tournament MVP. Hannah filled up the stat sheet once again, putting up eight points and eight rebounds with three blocks and three steals to continue his strong start to the season.
In a group filled with newcomers, the veterans used their experience to dispose of the Miners once again.
“We’re a very connected group,” said Hickman, who was named to the All-Tournament team. “No matter what’s going on, what adversity we’re going through we have very connected huddles, we have very good talk when we’re in the huddles and getting guys set.”
It was a slow roll for both teams to start, as UTEP shot 1-5 and Bradley 1-6 heading into the first media timeout. The Braves had to rely on Hickman to get them going, as he scored the first five points of the contest to give Bradley an early lead. The junior scored 10 of his 16 points in the first 12 minutes.
“A big thing for me is trying not to force shots, let the game come to me and I think I found my spots pretty well,” Hickman said.
Still, Bradley struggled to make shots, as UTEP’s defense was predicated on pressuring the ball handler and denying the entry pass to Leons or Hannah. They ran a frequent full court press and trapped in the half court when given the chance, resulting in a 3-15 start for the Braves from the field and a 12-9 lead for UTEP early on.
“[UTEP] did a tremendous job of running us off the 3-point line,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We’re a pretty good 3-point shooting team so I give them a lot of credit in that area.”
Following their slump, Bradley went on a 12-2 run, capped off by a Hickman stepback three with eight minutes to go in the half. All of a sudden, the Braves had a seven-point lead after making six of seven from the field.
With their shots starting to fall, the Braves’ confidence picked up and it led to some momentum plays to end the half. With less than 15 seconds on the clock, a steal from senior guard Duke Deen led to an alley-oop to Leons followed by another steal from junior Christian Davis, who threw it off the backboard to Hannah for a last-second dunk. This gave the Braves a 37-26 lead going into the locker room, their largest lead of the game.
While they may have energized the California crowd, the back-to-back dunks did not give the Braves the momentum they were hoping for heading into the second half. Much like the first, Bradley was in a shooting slump, starting 1-11 from the field and only scoring once in the first seven minutes. This, along with four Bradley turnovers, allowed the Miners to go on an 11-2 run and cut the lead down to two.
The sloppy play on offense didn’t cause the other side of the court to falter, as the Braves’ mix of aggressive man-to-man and zone defense didn’t allow UTEP to get much rhythm going on offense.
“The zone defense was good to us. It’s always helpful when you have short turnaround games,” Wardle said. “You gotta work on it in practice, your guys gotta have faith in it and they gotta trust it. Our guys wanted to go to it in certain situations and that’s the maturity of the group.”
“Coach wrote it on the board before the game, if you’re not scoring you have to defend,” Hickman added.
Trailing for all of the second half, UTEP aggressively tried to gain an edge, grabbing 10 offensive rebounds that led to 12 second-chance points in the final period. They were also in the bonus within the first seven minutes of the half, but every time they scored Bradley seemed to punch right back, not allowing the Miners within one possession for the majority of the frame.
UTEP only hit four threes the entire game, but leading scorer Tae Hardy hit two in less than a minute to cut the Braves’ lead to three with 1:31 to play. The Braves shot 20% from beyond the arc and didn’t make a three for the entire second half, but four straight free throws from Davis iced the game and sent Bradley home with the boogie board trophy.
“The fouling is something we have to clean up, obviously our turnovers we gotta continue to get better at, but just overall the fight, the toughness, the heart that our guys showed – very, very proud of them,” Wardle said.
Despite their worst shooting performance of the year, Bradley still pulled out a win by holding UTEP to under 40% shooting, the fourth time the Braves have achieved that mark this season. They also got a season-high eight points out of sophomore center Ahmet Jonovic, who tied a season-high in minutes with 17.
“I feel like every game we have someone else who steps up,” Leons said. “Today was Ahmet, another day it’s CD [Christian Davis], another day it’s E [sophomore guard Emarion Ellis] coming off the bench. We always have someone who steps up and delivers us the win and that’s what we need as a team.”
The road to 5-0 hasn’t been easy for Bradley, as all but one game has been decided by single-digits and two games have gone into overtime. Wardle says their resiliency and mental fortitude is already a team staple, and it will be needed heading into a home bout against Vermont (5-1) on Saturday, the back-to-back America East champions.
“We expect to win these close games, you can sense it in the group,” Wardle said. “They don’t get rattled, they settle each other down and they have great talk in the huddles and great communication. It’ll be fun to see where we can go.”