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Braves survive Redbirds in heart-pounding, “ugly” overtime win

Zek Montgomery and Malevy Leons share a hug. Photo by Larry Larson

What do Alexander Adler, Apichart Radee and Marco Barzallo all have in common? They’re all cardiologists in Peoria and they may be seeing an increase in appointments after a pulse-pounding 79-75 win by Bradley in overtime against its longstanding rival Illinois State. 

The game was Bradley’s first venture into overtime for this season and while the extra basketball was free, the Braves’ free throws apparently were not on Wednesday night. However, they fought through an abysmal 18-32 effort from the foul line with clutch plays from a variety of players at the right times to pick up a big – yet unglamorous – win to help them keep pace in the Missouri Valley Conference.

“We battled through a lot of adversity in the first half, a lot of adversity throughout the game,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “I’m just proud of our guys because we haven’t had the chance to win those ‘grind it out’ games when we don’t have it.”

Victory, for the moment, seemed to be in the hands of the Redbirds, following a three from ISU guard Malachi Poindexter to take a 68-67 lead with 1:21 left in regulation and a free throw from forward Liam McChesney to put ISU up by a pair with 14 ticks left. McChesney missed his second at the line and the Braves had a chance to win the game with a 3-pointer. 

During an unplanned and unlikely contested 3-point attempt for the win, Bradley sophomore guard Zek Montgomery drew contact on his release with 3 seconds left, sending him to the place of horrors for the Braves that night: the free throw line.

Montgomery missed his first, made his second, then sank his third with all 6,046 eyes in Carver Arena on him to tie the game at 69 and send it into overtime. One could almost see the agony, followed by the relief, in the place.

“They tried to ice me,” Montgomery said. “But I kept my composure though. I said ‘I can’t mess up again. Last game I messed up and this game, I kept my head on and let no one faze me.”

“I’m thinking Mr. Zek right here, those were some huge free throws,” Bradley senior forward Leons said about what was going through his mind on the Braves’ last possession in regulation. “I was praying to my gods and I’m happy he made them.”

The visiting Redbirds were unfazed to start overtime, re-establishing their presence with a 4-0 spurt that included a slam dunk from guard Seneca Knight. There came yet another opportunity for Bradley to step up in the face in adversity and again, they succeeded.

Leons made a free throw and Mast drained a turnaround in the post to cut ISU’s lead to 73-72. After a stretch where the Braves forced four missed shots and two Redbird turnovers, sophomore guard Connor Hickman settled into a 3-pointer from the wing that spun around the rim and in to give Bradley the lead for good with just under a minute to play. 

Hickman only made three field goals on nine attempts, but he struck from deep when Bradley needed it most, both in overtime and with 3:16 left in the second half to give the Braves their first tie of the period at 63 all.

“It’s sort of like a sign of relief like once you keep missing, you start to get in your head a little bit,” Montgomery said of his teammate. “But once you see it go in, your confidence goes back up.” 

“Any time you’re at home and you’re in overtime, you’re feeling like you’re hoping you have the advantage there with the crowd and the energy,” Wardle said. “Credit to Illinois State, they jumped it in overtime ‘Boom boom’. Then we settled in, came down and made some big plays and had a few loose balls and a few blocks. I thought Malevy [Leons] rebounded his tail off in overtime and that was big because we didn’t have our rebounding.”

Battle in its truest form

Following a 1-2 trip to the line –a far too familiar sight for the Braves on Wednesday night– from junior guard Duke Deen, Illinois State guard Luke Kasubke had an opportunity to tie the game at 76 late in overtime with a three that fell short.

Bradley’s Malevy Leons shoots a free throw against Wisconsin-Parkside. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Leons then split a pair of free throws and left the door open again for ISU. Redbirds guard Darius Burford scored a layup to make it 77-75 Bradley, and after a quick ISU foul, Leons finally closed the door with a perfect trip to the stripe to seal the Bradley victory.

“Missed free throws can be contagious,” Wardle said. “We definitely got in our heads tonight and didn’t knock them down. But [Malevy] hit two big ones and Zek [Montgomery] hit two big ones but it was not our night.” 

“It’s a rivalry and it’s always going to be hard, they really brought it,” Leons said. “We just had to scramble it out there and dig it out. It’s win…it’s ugly, but it’s a win.” 

The bounceback from Illinois State was impressive: the Redbirds had the Braves at risk of losing their second straight home game after the visitors fell by 20 at home to Valparaiso after shooting 33 percent from the field. At times, it felt like they shot the lights out when they held a small first half lead that burgeoned even more in the second half.

“I thought that everybody that played for us left it on the floor,” Illinois State head coach Ryan Pedon said. “As a coach, I want to win the game. There’s a part of me that’s very disappointed and a part of me that appreciated that we left it all out on the floor.”

Besides free throws, Bradley’s biggest culprit in the near-loss was getting plain dominated by the Redbirds on the glass with ISU outrebounding Bradley 44-25 and doubling up the Braves 16-8 in offensive boards. Six offensive rebounds from Bradley’s rivals in the first four minutes of the second half gave the Braves barely a chance to erase a 40-36 halftime deficit. 

Although the Braves began to lock down on defense nearing the midway point of the second half, they went cold from the field. On the other end of the floor, two offensive rebounds led to four points from ISU forward Kendall Lewis, the latter of which gave the Redbirds their biggest lead of the game at 55-45 with 10:41 left in regulation.

“There was no panic because there was so much time left,” Wardle said of his thought process at the time. “We knew we were starting to guard better, we just weren’t getting the rebounds or the loose balls.”

The Bradley Braves huddle during a timeout. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

A Deen three ball seemed to give promise to the Braves in hope of getting out of the rut, but Kasubke grabbed another offensive rebound for the visitors off his own miss that put them back up 58-49. 

“I give ISU credit, they killed us on the glass and we didn’t match their toughness until the last 10 minutes of the second half and overtime,” Wardle said of his team that is among the MVC leaders in rebounding margin. “I thought they played big and I had some mistakes on matchups that we changed in the second half, which obviously worked. They were pounding us on the glass and they doesn’t happen to us much, ever, really.” 

“You’ve got to step it up”

The Braves came down the stretch inspired and unwilling to let their I-74 rivals breathe easily. A 11-5 run over the stretch of four and half minutes included five points from Deen and a trio of buckets from junior forward Rienk Mast before Hickman’s game-tying three.

Mast, a 71 percent free throw shooter this season, bullied the smaller ISU forwards down low and shot 6-10 from the field but an extremely uncharacteristic 1-7 from the charity stripe, including a pair of misses that would’ve given Bradley the lead with 16 seconds left.

Still, Mast was one of five Braves in double figures with 13. Leons led BU’s balanced scoring attack with a 16-point, 11-rebound double-double and Deen finished with 14. Illinois State’s Knight led all scorers with 19.

“I think their defense had something to do with it,” Pedon said about Bradley coming back. “I think they amped up their pressure. In those moments, I thought taking care of the basketball could have been better.” 

“Just calling each other out and saying ‘You’ve got to step it up,’” Leons said about the Braves’ actions through adversity. I feel like at the end, everyone started to respond and give max effort.” 

In a see-saw first half, Bradley trailed for nearly 14 minutes of it despite forcing 16 of ISU’s season-high 24 turnovers for the game during the frame. The Braves at last began to seize some good mojo nearing the intermission with dunks from junior forward Darius Hannah and Montgomery that knotted the contest at 36 with just four ticks before the buzzer. 

Or so they thought, as Poindexter flopped to the ground after throwing up a deep three at the horn, drawing a foul that induced Carver Arena to erupt in its loudest chorus of boos all season. The highly debatable foul call drew the ire of Wardle and the Braves bench, who were given a technical foul. The ISU guard made four out of the five free throws to give the Illinois State the edge halfway through.

The Redbirds, fourth in the country in free throw percentage, shot 14-17 from the foul line in the first half. 

“I thought in the first half, we had some momentum,” Wardle said. “We lost all of our momentum and it was out of our control so we had to stay together at halftime and refocus.”

“Adversity, it’s what we go through in practice,” Montgomery added. “Coach is making us go through adversity and we went through that adversity today. We got through it.”

Getting the edge

While Bradley couldn’t control the first-half calls, they could control many other aspects throughout the heated contest. Some they didn’t come through on, like free throws, missed open shots and offensive rebounds, but some they did, like hitting shots when they mattered most and locking down the paint without fouling much in the second half.

The rowdy fans in the building aided Bradley’s home-court advantage.

“That’s an amazing feeling; when the crowd pumps you up, it makes you want to play harder,” Montgomery said. “Once you hear the crowd, you can’t really go wrong.”

Zek Montgomery shoots a corner 3 at Carver Arena. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

“We missed a lot of free throws, a lot of layups, a lot of open threes,” Wardle said. “We could just never get the place rocking but the fans were great and that’s why home court is so huge because they can help you when you don’t have it on certain nights.”

The 135th chapter in the series between two of the oldest schools in the MVC gave BU a 70-65 lead all time. 50 of them have been decided by five points or fewer and the Braves have a chance to sweep the season series for the first time since 2020 when they head to Normal on Feb. 8. 

Leons is one of many Bradley players that has become accustomed to what it means when Bradley and Illinois State face off on the hardwood. 

“I feel like both teams bring their max efforts every time to this rivalry and it’s always going to be a close matchup, no matter the standings in the MVC,” Leons said.

Pedon, although less experienced in the rivalry in his first year coaching the Redbirds, perhaps put it best.

“It was a war out there tonight, but it was everything I would’ve expected.”

Bradley will head on the road for their second matchup of the season against the Illinois-Chicago Flames on Sunday with tipoff scheduled for 2 p.m.

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