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Braves dominate Bates, Eagles in 89-61 romp

Bradley head coach Brian Wardle and Connor Hickman huddle up with the Braves. Photo by Jenna Zeise

 It’s not often that the home team isn’t the primary focus among its fans before a home game. 

Sure, a crowd of 4,110 at Carver Arena wanted to see the Braves play in their second home contest of the season. But a large portion of them made the trek on a snowy Tuesday night to additionally behold the spectacle that was Eastern Michigan’s 18-year old phenom Emoni Bates. 

The lanky sophomore forward has been in the national spotlight for years. Sports Illustrated hailed Bates as the “next Kevin Durant” on its cover when he was 15 years old. Recruiting sites sang his praises as a player who “has multi-year all-star type potential” in the NBA. Despite injuries, transferring down from the Memphis Tigers and legal trouble just weeks before the Eagles’ first game, Bates shook off all the distractions and came into Peoria riding an eye-popping 30-point effort against No. 22-ranked Michigan.

However, much to the delight of the Braves fans in attendance, Bradley forced Bates and Eastern Michigan to succumb to a stifling defensive effort that ended in an 89-61 Bradley victory. 

“We were trying to make them frustrated and make them take tough shots and I think we did a really good job [on that] today,” senior guard Ville Tahvanainen said.

Bradley used a 22-4 run in the final six minutes and change of the first half to jump out to a 41-21 halftime lead and never looked back. Five Braves ended in double figures, led by 16 from senior forward Malevy Leons and 15 from senior forward Ja’Shon Henry.

Defense leads to offense

As most basketball coaches would say, the best offense originates from good defense and nothing rang more true for the Braves in the on-campus portion of the Cancun Challenge.

Following a tortoise-like start offensively from both teams, the substitution of Henry off the bench provided the spark to a fire that lasted all night long for the Braves. But Bradley’s defense, led by Leons, Henry, junior forward Darius Hannah and sophomore guard Zek Montgomery, was the lighter fluid, forcing the Eagles to reach deep in their bag of off-balance moves to even get most of their shots off.

“We made them shoot all contested jump shots and did a great job at the rim jumping vertical and just being long and that ignited the transition,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said.

After the Braves forced multiple deflections and blocks on a single Eagles possession, a midrange jumper from junior guard Duke Deen at 9:23 in the first half got the Braves out of a shooting rut and put them up 14-10. Henry followed it up with another layup shortly afterwards as eight of his 15 points came in the first 12 minutes of action.

A jumper from Eastern Michigan’s Legend Geeter brought the Eagles to a 19-17 deficit with six and a half minutes left to play in the first half, but the game took a massive turn for the Braves in the ensuing 48 seconds.

Ville Tahvanainen looks on from the bench. Photo by Jenna Zeise

Hannah split a pair of free throws, but Henry fought physically to grab the offensive rebound and immediately got fouled in the process. Like Hannah, the Canadian forward split his free throws but Tahvanainen secured the rebound before dishing it to sophomore guard Connor Hickman, who drained a 3-pointer from the wing to put the Braves up 24-17. Leons sank a deep ball in transition on the next possession at the 5:41 mark to extend Bradley’s lead to 10 and energize the home faithful.

“We got a lot of points in transitions and easy shots,” Tahvanainen said. “[We] started making shots later on in the first half too so it kind of just got our flow going for the rest of the game.” 

“We didn’t let him get going”

Meanwhile, if it wasn’t for their names on the back of their jerseys, it’d be hard to tell that the future NBA lottery pick Bates and fellow Eagles standout Noah Farrakhan were even on the floor in the first half. The Braves’ smothering defense continually forced contested jump shots, as the duo hit a brick wall offensively and went 2-13 from the field before the half. According to Tahvanainen, making a barrier was quite literally Bradley’s gameplan all along. 

“Obviously, we wanted to make it hard for [Bates],” Tahvanainen said. “We know he’s a very talented offensive player and he can make a lot of tough shots so especially early on, we wanted to take him out of his rhythm. [We wanted] to make him see a wall all the time and not give him anything easy.” 

Ja’Shon Henry defends in a Braves’ win against UW-Parkside. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

“[Bates] can make tough shots, that’s what he can do,” Wardle added. “You just can’t let a guy like that get going and we didn’t let him get going tonight.”

The Braves smelled blood in the water and sank four free throws prior to Tahvanainen and Leons calmly sinking 3-pointers that capped off the 10-0 run to put Bradley up 37-18 with a little over a minute left in the first frame. The Eagles’ frustration grew by committing 11 fouls before the intermission, giving Bradley a 13-4 advantage in trips to the foul line. 

Bradley ended the contest going 20-29 from the charity stripe, more than tripling the number of free throws that the visitors had. 

“I think our foul trouble bothered us and I thought we got a little bit passive and allowed them to drive by us and get layups,” Eastern Michigan head coach Stan Heath said. “[Bradley] shot the ball well and passed the ball well as a team.”

The Braves scored in a variety of ways throughout the night, using shot fakes, drawing fouls, cuts towards the basket and making shots that seemed to demoralize Eastern Michigan over time. Frustrated floor slaps, hanging heads and a technical foul on Heath late in the second half summed up the night for the visitors, who have high expectations in the Mid-American Conference with the arrival of Bates this season.

Hannah elicited a much different type of emotion on Bradley’s side with three dunks – two of which came within 18 seconds of each other early on in the second half.

“Those are great,” Leons said on Hannah’s trademark slams. “It gets the crowd going. It’s great to see him fly out there and I like the momentum it brings us.”

Feast and famine

Contrary to Bradley’s red-hot play, the first 20 minutes saw the Eagles shoot just 31 percent. No matter how hard they tried, Eastern Michigan simply could not put the ball in the basket consistently, save for the final few minutes, which was a stark contrast to their 88-83 loss against a powerful Michigan squad four days earlier.

“We looked like two different teams for sure,” Heath said. “And that’s something we’ve got to fix. It’s our first road game. I don’t think our guys understand what a true road game is like.” 

Eastern Michigan’s Emoni Bates (left) warms up at Carver Arena. Photo by Jonathan Michel

All was not lost for Bates, who turned on an improved shooting display in the second half and finished with a game-high 20 points. 

“He made some [tough shots] tonight too but overall, it’s a team game,” Wardle said. “I told the team before the game ‘The team that sacrifices for each other more is going to win’…and that’s what makes basketball so beautiful is that it’s the ultimate team game. Talent doesn’t always win. You’ve got to be the better team.”

“I feel like when we guard a good player like that, it’s a team effort,” Leons added. “We do it with all five guys on the court. They can’t beat all five of us.”

Both teams shot over 50 percent in the second half, but the Eagles never cut the deficit to below 20 in the last 17 minutes of the game. When the final buzzer sounded, the Braves had outscored the Eagles 25-3 in fast break points and 35-15 in bench points thanks to Henry’s 16 and Tahvanainen’s 11. 

“I hope the crowd enjoyed this game,” Wardle said. “I think it was a fun game to watch and be a part of.”

The Braves host Southeast Missouri State on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. before traveling to Cancun, Mexico the week of Thanksgiving to take on No. 13 Auburn.

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