Like a well-oiled machine, all it takes is one cog to start spinning the whole collection of gears.
In Bradley men’s basketball’s 83-76 victory against Illinois-Chicago in the Windy City, junior guard Duke Deen may have been the starting cog to the Braves’ well-balanced attack.
“Deen made some big shots [and] momentum changing threes,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “He was cutting with pace, really set the whole tempo for us and got us moving. He had a terrific game.”
For the transfer from Troy, it was a breakout game after recent shooting struggles. Going into Chicago, Deen had shot lower than 27 percent in his last three matchups. Against the Flames, the junior amassed 21 points on 50 percent shooting while dishing out four assists —both team highs.
“I didn’t think it was just this opponent that made me feel comfortable, we were doing things that worked, running our plan and I was getting my shots down,” Deen said.
Deen’s performance paced the Braves through their fourth road win and their second matchup with UIC this season. The first, a 79-45 drubbing in Peoria on New Year’s Eve, had much of the same makings as the win Sunday afternoon.
Illinois-Chicago made it apparent that Bradley junior forward Rienk Mast would not have a repeat of his 13-point, 17 rebound line in December. The Flames collapsed on Mast and charged the glass to keep the Braves off the board. This allowed an early UIC 13-8 lead at the 12:17 mark in the first half.
While the Flames focused on crashing the glass, the Braves found their answer in the form of three consecutive 3’s. Senior guard Ville Tahvanainen connected on the first while Deen rattled in the second and senior forward Malevy Leons cashed the third for the 17-14 lead with 10:45 left in the first period.
“We started seeing how to break them inside and then we hit all those threes and [it] just deflated them,” Leons said.
After a timeout by UIC head coach Luke Yaklich, the outside attack began to seep inside. Deen connected on another trey before he fed the charging Leons for a dunk. Mast used a move on the left post to score and up the lead to 24-17.
When the 3:49 mark rolled around, Bradley had taken an 11-point lead. In the first matchup, UIC had shot 1-18 from beyond the arc. On Sunday, they had started out 0-8 behind the 3-point line.
Flames’ guard Jace Carter knocked down the first UIC three before the horn sounded to give his team some light as they faced a 36-28 deficit and the possibility of losing their ninth straight.
Sometimes you just need one to fall and that’s the explanation behind the barrage of deep shots that UIC lined up out of the locker room.
At the 15:39 mark of the second half, Illinois-Chicago had connected on three treys to close the halftime gap. Now trailing 44-41, Yaklich and the Flames began to break Bradley down defensively.
“We have to remember that people get excited to play us,” Wardle said. “We have to keep up our intensity in games like this and make sure we play the whole 40.”
UIC got within one before Deen pulled up on a baseline jumper from the right side and followed up the make with his fourth 3-pointer of the game. After Leons and Mast repeatedly spun around defenders for easy finishes at the rim, Bradley had now taken a 57-46 lead with 11:16 to play.
Sophomore guard Zek Montgomery, who scored four in the early going, joined the party from outside the arc to help BU take a 70-53 lead as the clock dipped below seven minutes to play.
UIC utilized a few garbage time 3-pointers to pull closer, but the spark wasn’t enough to keep the Flames alive and Bradley would go on to finish their second-straight win away from home.
Alongside Deen, Leons totaled 19 points and grabbed seven boards, Mast and Montgomery both scored 15 with Mast collecting eight boards and Montgomery taking in seven.
“I thought defensively, in the second half we actually weren’t very good,” Wardle stressed. “[We] didn’t really close the game out. We were up 15 at one point and didn’t keep our intensity and talk.”
Closing out the win may have not been the smoothest of operations but a win in any fashion is all that the Braves needed as the top two teams in the MVC fell Sunday afternoon.
Illinois State, fresh off the overtime loss in Peoria, toppled Southern Illinois at home and Drake, without Tucker DeVries, went and smoked a hot Belmont squad in Nashville. The Braves were quick to find out they now sat one game out of first.
“We just found out that Belmont and SIU both lost,” Deen said. “That’s exciting for us [but] we have to take care of our own business.”
The Braves will get their chance Wednesday when the Salukis travel to Peoria for a matchup that could end up being large in deciding the upper echelon of the Valley. That game tips off at 7:00 p.m.