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Braves suffer heart-breaking loss to Evansville on the road

Duke Deen shoots a three over a defender. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.


It’s the feeling many basketball players have as they watch the ball in the air during a game-tying shot. 

Will it go in? Did it get off in time? 

These questions run through the minds of players and coaches alike as the game hangs in the balance. 

In their season’s second matchup, Bradley men’s basketball (17-7, 9-4 MVC) faced the Purple Aces of Evansville (15-9, 6-7 MVC). Bradley won the first game by 36 points at home, but on Wednesday, the game came down to the wire. As the clock approached zero, senior guard Duke Deen knocked down a last-second three to tie the game. 

Or so he thought. 

After nearly a minute and a half of deliberation, the referees called Deen’s shot no good and fans in the Ford Center breathed a sigh of relief.

“I thought I did [make it in time],” Deen said. “Maybe it was still on the tips of my fingers or whatever. I saw it was one second and didn’t think it would take it that long to get off.” 

“It didn’t count though, so I guess not,” Deen added. 

Slow start 

The defeat felt similar to many of the Braves’ losses this season. Bradley started slow, missed shots and had to battle back to give themselves a chance to win. 

The Braves opened the game 1-11 from the field and continuously turned the ball over. On the defensive end, Bradley uncharacteristically gave up open three-point looks. The Braves ranked fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) at shutting down the three before the game, but the Purple Aces started 4-5. 

“We couldn’t make a shot,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “I liked some of the shots we got, but we didn’t shoot the ball real well in the first half. Turnovers killed us. We had 12, and defensively, we missed assignments. It was just a bad start for us.” 

Bradley trailed 17-4 until a Deen three got the ball rolling. The two teams began to trade baskets until the first media timeout. The Braves came out in a 3-2 zone after the timeout, a strategy that has been successful at times this season like in their Jan. 27 game versus Indiana State.  

The comeback 

The adjustment paid off instantly.

Bradley rattled off a 9-0 run in 59 seconds to cut the deficit to eight. The switch to zone disrupted the flow of Evansville’s offense. The Purple Aces had a difficult time hunting favorable matchups and playing in the post. Going into the half, the Braves trailed 32-27. 

Things began to look up by halftime. The Braves did most of the leg work involved in a comeback and received zero points from junior guard Connor Hickman and graduate forward Malevy Leons. Deen led Bradley with 11 points and six rebounds. 

“I felt pretty good at halftime,” Wardle said. “I think the team felt good. We started to pick things up defensively in those last eight minutes, and offensively, we kind of got back in the game.”

The Braves carried their momentum into the second half. Bradley did a much better job handling the ball, controlling the pace and defending the three-point line. 

The “four-headed monster” steps up 

Wardle got the ball in the hands of his best players, who have been labeled the “four-headed monster” by announcers. These players include Deen, Leons, Hickman and senior forward Darius Hannah. 

Deen took a facilitative role for most of the second half and let his three teammates take care of the scoring. The Leons-Hickman-Hannah trio combined for 31 of Bradley’s 43 points in the second half.  

Connor Hickman, Malevy Leons, Duke Deen and Darius Hannah huddle. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

A three from Hickman gave the Braves a 39-36 lead, their first of the game. From then on, the lead changed five times in the final 15 minutes. The game came down to execution, and Evansville fared better down the stretch. 

“We were there,” Wardle said. “I thought our group was confident in the timeouts to try to push this game and win it. We didn’t execute. We didn’t make some big shots, and they did.“

“We executed in the last 20 seconds,” Wardle added. “Leading up to that, probably the last five minutes, we had some breakdowns offensively, and then defensively they pounded the ball inside and got to the foul line a lot. They won it at the free throw line.”

Exciting finish 

The game ended with fans on the edge of their seats. The Braves hit clutch shot after clutch shot while the Purple Aces responded by making their last ten free throws. 

On the last play of the game, Hickman stormed down the court and launched a three. It did not fall, but Hannah grabbed an offensive rebound and kicked it out to Deen. Deen raised and fired, making the shot at the buzzer. The officials initially counted the basket but ultimately deemed it to be after time expired. 

“I did not feel great about it,” Wardle said. “I thought the buzzer sounded [and] it looked like it might have still been in his hand at the last second. I was hoping there wasn’t enough footage to go against that but there was.”

Bradley is back in action at home against Drake on Saturday at Carver Arena. It will be the first time the Braves face the Bulldogs since last year’s loss in the MVC Championship. 

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