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Braves grind out win over Redbirds

Connor Hickman dribbles up the court. Photo by Rodrigo Perez

Heading into Saturday’s game against Illinois State, Bradley men’s basketball head coach Brian Wardle knew that in order to win, his team’s defense had to lock in for a full game – something they have struggled to do in the midst of a 2-3 stretch.

His guys responded in a big way, churning out a 48-45 win over their I-74 rivals, the lowest-scoring game in the Missouri Valley Conference this season.

“See, I love that win,” Wardle said. “That is a grind it out, end of February, Arch Madness type win [against a] conference rival. We needed a win like that, to be honest, where we guarded for 40 minutes even when the ball’s not going in, so that’s a big step for us today.”

Bradley (20-9, 12-6 MVC) held ISU to just 28% shooting on the day, including a 3-23 mark from three. They held standout freshman Johnny Kinziger, who averaged 23.3 points per game during the Redbirds’ three-game winning streak coming into the game against the Braves, to 10 points on 2-10 shooting.

In a similar vein, ISU (14-15, 8-10 MVC) held senior Duke Deen to 11 points after the Braves’ guard scored 35 just three days prior at Missouri State. As a team, Bradley shot only one percent better than the Redbirds to shoot their lowest percentages and score their fewest amount of points this season.

“We know we can shoot… they just weren’t falling,” Deen said. “It is what it is. As long as we played defense I felt like we were gonna win the game, and that’s what happened.”

“That was a 40-minute rock fight,” ISU head coach Ryan Pedon said. “They made a few more plays than we did and made a few more shots than we did and I think at the end of the day, that’s what made the difference.”

The game’s closing sequence almost spelled disaster for the Braves. Down by eight with four minutes to go, ISU’s Dalton Banks hit a floater to end a nearly nine-minute scoring drought for the Redbirds, then did it again with under a minute left to cut the lead to four. A Deen turnover led to a three on the other end from Luke Kasubke, bringing the deficit to one.

Two free throws from Christian Davis pushed the lead back to three, allowing Pedon to call a timeout and draw up a play. He set one up for Malachi Poindexter, the team’s highest-volume 3-point shooter, but his shot went long and Kasubke came down with the rebound. He put up a three with Davis’ hand in his face, but his shot fell short and an MVC season-high 9,201 fans went home happy.

The game was the lowest-scoring one between the rivals since 1928 and the fewest Bradley has scored in a win against ISU since a 48-47 victory in 1982.

“I kind of like it,” graduate forward Malevy Leons said. “It’s a gritty game and [we] just play hard, play physical. It was good.”

Wardle knew going into the game that the Redbirds had good post presence, with Myles Foster (6-foot-7, 235 pounds), Kendall Lewis (6-foot-8, 210 pounds) and Chase Walker (6-foot-9, 290 pounds) all posing matchup problems for the undersized Braves and giving the visitors some early points in the paint.

Bradley’s response to this size: senior forward Connor Linke.

“He’s a strong senior that’s been in the program four years and we thought just down the stretch we needed that experience on the floor and I thought he helped us today, for sure,” Wardle said.

Linke turned in a season-high 17 minutes on Saturday, tying a team-high with eight rebounds and providing the physical presence the Braves lacked to match up with the three bigs of the Redbirds. He also helped keep fellow bigs Leons and senior Darius Hannah out of foul trouble.

“I mean I’m just doing it for these guys, really,” Linke said, pointing to Leons and Deen. “I just want to win and coach thinks just having me in there on defense and just being solid on offense, that just helps us win.”

Linke’s spent most of his Braves career on the sideline, but his eight boards were a career high and ISU only scored six of their 24 points in the paint when he was in the game. Putting on 15 pounds since his freshman year, Linke credits director of sports performance Eddie Pappis for building his strength that allowed him to battle the Redbirds down low.

“That weight room definitely helps because those guys are bruisers, they move you around,” Linke said. “Just needed to find my rhythm. I think that was for all of us, and then finally we found it and then we really tried to hold them.”

A 21-21 tie after the first half sent both teams into the locker room with work to be done. It was Bradley’s lowest-scoring first half of the season as they shot just 2-15 from three. ISU also started the game with six offensive rebounds to Bradley’s zero, ultimately finishing with 15 to extend their MVC lead in offensive boards per game.

Despite the second chances, the Redbirds only came up with nine points off their own rebounds. In particular, Foster grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds with six on the offensive glass, but the ISU big man only had six points to show for it.

“You get 15 offensive boards, I’m expecting to score 12 to 15 at minimum,” Pedon said. “We gotta finish better in the paint and around the rim. That’s a jump we gotta make.”

Bradley shot at a slightly better clip from three in the second half (38.5%), but shot the exact same percent from the field as the first. As a team who’s scored over 60 points in all but one game this season, the missed shots were not something the Braves were accustomed to.

“I feel like we got a lot of open shots, they just weren’t falling tonight,” Leons said.

However, one game won’t steer Wardle away from his normal approach.

“We make a lot of threes and we shoot it at a high clip, so I’m gonna let them shoot and I’m gonna tell them to keep shooting,” Wardle said.

Bradley went on a 9-0 run with 7:30 left in the game to take a 45-37 lead, their largest of the game thanks to threes from Leons and freshman Almar Atlason. The latter hit his only two shots of the game down the stretch – first to take the lead and then to extend it to eight.

The Braves’ “four-headed monster” of Deen, Leons, Hannah and junior Connor Hickman combined to shoot just 28%, so performances from Atlason, Linke and the rest of the role players proved to be huge factors in pulling out the win. Every Brave who got into the game scored.

“Our key guys struggled and we still found a way to win,” Wardle said. “That’s a big step.”

With two games to go until Arch Madness, Bradley sits in third place in the conference with a first-round bye at St. Louis already locked up. Only one game separates them and Southern Illinois, so Wardle says games like Saturday will be huge for the team as they head into the tournament.

“I was proud of my guys,” Wardle said. “I’ve been pushing them to defend like that, because that’s what it’s going to take to win at the end of this month in Arch Madness and we know that through experience.”

The Braves take on the Salukis on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

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