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Braves’ season ends at Cincinnati

Bradley University men’s basketball players. From left to right: Darius Hannah, Sam Hennessy, Connor Hickman, Cade Hardtke, Christian Davis and Malevy Leons. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Bradley men’s basketball fell 74-57 in Cincinnati on Saturday, ending their 2023-24 campaign on a rather disappointing note.

They also might be seeing a guy named Jizzle in their nightmares.

Bradley shot 37% from the field against the Bearcats in the second round of the NIT, including their third-worst mark from three this season at 21.7%. Cincinnati freshman Jizzle James, in his first career start, poured in a career-high 25 points on 11-17 shooting to lead all scorers.

James got the start in place of the injured Day Day Thomas, Cincinnati’s usual starting point guard who suffered a broken foot during the Bearcats’ first-round win over San Francisco. It’s the first game Thomas missed all season, and Bradley head coach Brian Wardle may have wished he hadn’t.

“Day Day is a great defender, but I was scared that James was gonna play a lot more today, to be quite honest,” Wardle said. “He’s a dynamic player and he can really score, so that’s scary when you have a guy like that and he knows he’s gonna play a lot today because of the circumstances and he got going on us.”

James was joined by Simas Lukošius’ 17 points and Dan Skillings Jr.’s 20 points to complete the Bearcats’ three-headed attack. Seventeen of Skillings’ points came in the second half, and Lukošius followed up an eight-three performance against the Dons with five against the Braves.

On the other hand, Bradley was led by graduate forward Malevy Leons’ 16 and junior guard Connor Hickman’s 14, in what will end up being the former’s final game as a Brave. Hickman scored 12 of his 14 points in the first half, but Skillings’ ramp up in the second half translated to the defensive side as well, giving Hickman problems once both teams came out of the locker room.

“It was just kind of having to adjust to his length and his physicality,” Hickman said. “I thought I was getting better shots in the first half, I thought I had more pace coming off ball screens and off my cuts and I thought second half I kinda let his physicality get into me a little bit and I just can’t really let that take me out of my game and still keep hunting the shots that I was getting in the first half.”

Senior forward Darius Hannah, who was second in the MVC in field-goal percentage coming into the game, shot just 1-8, while sharpshooting senior guard Duke Deen shot 2-10 and 1-8 from three. Bradley made just five threes compared to the Bearcats’ 10, a recipe for disaster for the third-best 3-point shooting team in the Valley this season.

“We have to hit threes. I mean, we’re a 3-point shooting team,” Wardle said. “Going into the game [if] they hit 10 [and] we hit five – it’s gonna be really hard to win here if that’s the case.”

Bradley’s bench unit tried to keep them in it, as sophomore Kyle Thomas had a season-high eight points while junior Christian Davis contributed six points and a team-high eight rebounds, part of a 20-3 bench points advantage for the Braves.

It wasn’t enough, however, as Bradley only led once against a top-20 defensive efficiency team in the country.

“That’s disappointing to end our season that way, but it’s a good group of men I got in that locker room,” Wardle said. “We had a lot of fun this year, we got better, we improved, we grew. We just didn’t really have it today, unfortunately.”

Lukošius picked up where he left off in Cincinnati’s first-round game by draining two threes before the first media timeout, helping the Bearcats grow a 12-5 lead early on. Leons got the bulk of the assignment on the junior, but off-ball screens helped Lukošius gain separation on the MVC Defensive Player of the Year, and the familiar rim helped him make four threes in the first half.

The 12-5 lead grew to 21-8, with a fadeaway jumper from James capping off an 18-3 run from the Bearcats to break the game open with 11:46 to go in the first. Hickman went on an 8-0 run by himself to keep the Braves within striking distance, hitting threes on a stepback and a pull-up and cutting to the basket for a feed from Hannah for a layup.

Lukošius ended the Hickman run with a pump fake to get Leons to jump, which led into yet another three. Fast forward to 3:46 left, and Lukošius hit another, this time rubbing off a screen into a spot-up triple from the wing. The Bearcats came into the game as the worst 3-point shooting team in the Big 12, but on Saturday, Lukošius helped his team outshoot the Braves on the perimeter.

“I think that’s one thing Cincinnati probably lacked this year a little bit with some injuries is shooting,” Wardle said. “If they’re hitting 10 threes they’re really hard to beat.”

James also gave the Braves fits in the first, scoring 14 to kick off his first career start with a bang. He hit fadeaways from the midrange, drove to the basket for acrobatic layups and even spotted up from downtown for a couple threes. When the half ended, Cincinnati led 36-28 as Bradley shot just 32% in the frame.

“They were the better team today, for sure,” Wardle said. “Played with multiple efforts, played extremely hard, 50-50 balls, rebounds. All those big effort plays we lacked a little bit, and that’s not the Bradley way, that’s not how we’ve played, it’s not what we pride ourselves on as a program but they out-worked us at times, for sure.”

Knowing Bradley needed to shut down James and Lukošius in the second half, the Bearcats’ leading scorer was still lurking. Skillings came out scorching, scoring 13 of his team’s first 19 points to give Cincinnati a 56-37 lead with 13:12 to go, their largest of the game.

“You see it on film, but you never know until you see it in person,” Wardle said about Skillings. “His first step is extremely quick for a [6-foot-6] guy, and we struggled to keep him in front.”

Bradley went on a quick 6-0 run on a couple layups from Davis to creep back into things, but a crazy sequence that saw the ball head into the Cincinnati backcourt with six seconds on the shot clock ended in a James layup over Leons to crush that momentum.

The Braves pulled within single digits on a jumper from Thomas with 6:44 left, but once again an inadvertent pass led to a fastbreak, and-one layup from James and even more catching up to do for Bradley. James then hit a pullup jumper, followed by two drives and finishes from Skillings to completely ice the game.

“We still can do some things we didn’t do well today…but we’re better than that,” Wardle said. “I was disappointed, I thought we dominated at half and we didn’t shoot the ball well at all. I liked where we were, I thought we could make a run if we just got some stops and got out in transition and shot the ball better. We just didn’t have it today unfortunately.”

The Bearcats ended Bradley’s season, one that saw them win the SoCal Challenge, get off to their best start in 34 years and finish top-three in the Valley for the second straight year, something they haven’t done since 1997. It’s not the way the team wanted the season to end, but it’s still a season Wardle is proud of.

“We had a really fun year, these guys have been a great group to coach. We had some really good highs, a few lows but it was a really fun, tight-knit group,” Wardle said. “It’s frustrating to lose this game today, it’s gonna take a few days [to reflect].”

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