After a grueling and seemingly never-ending victory on Saturday night, Always a Brave head coach Daniel Ruffin knew that his younger players would have to step up. With Jimmy Gavin and Donte Thomas both not playing, their options were limited if the Bradley alumni were to fulfill their coach’s wish, but no one stepped up more in Always a Brave’s 70-50 victory against the Jackson TN Underdawgs than Darrell Brown.
The 5-foot-10-inch guard who guided two Bradley teams to MVC Championships led the team with 18 points, six rebounds and six assists in a victory that was much easier on the cardiac health of everyone in Carver Arena.
“[I knew I had to] just come out and play team ball and share the ball,” Brown said. “I kind of feed off the older guys and they were playing defense and got rebounds and showed us the way throughout the game. I just let the game come to me on offense,”
Holding a narrow 26-25 lead at halftime, Brown added 14 points for Always a Brave in the second half on 6-8 shooting. Not only Brown, but the entire Bradley alumni team improved on the offensive end after the break, shooting 64 percent in the second half, a stark contrast to their 26 percent mark in the first half.
The game seesawed between the halfway points of the first and third quarters and with another raucous home crowd in the stands, Bradley’s alumni needed a turning point. Starting with lockdown defense and seven points from Luqman Lundy, Always a Brave began to take control when Peoria Notre Dame graduate Max Bielfeldt knocked down a wide-open straightaway three-pointer with 1:38 left to go in the third. The forward’s deep ball ended his 1-10 shooting slump in TBT and turned on the switch for Brown to take over.
“I thought the turning point was when we got a couple stops,” Saturday night’s hero Sommerville said. “Max hit a big three and it felt like that’s when the momentum shifted in our favor and we got a lot of stops after that,”
“I agree, I think after Max hit that three, from that point on I think that’s when [Brown] turned it on for us and took over the game from the guard standpoint,” Ruffin said. “That’s what we need him to do, he has to perform at that level to give us a chance. I think by him getting a taste of that, he knows what his role is with us.”
Along with the play of Brown, the difference in free throws between Always a Brave and the Underdawgs played a defining role in determining the final outcome. After shooting only nine free throws against the Chicago Hoopville Warriors on Saturday, Always a Brave shot 16-23 from the stripe on Monday. Jackson, on the other hand, only shot a pair from the line, missing both.
“It was huge. A difference of 16 points from the line is pretty unusual but at the same time I felt like they were grabbing and a little bit aggressive,” Sommerville said.
In Saturday’s upset win against House of ‘Paign on Saturday, Jackson displayed their longstanding identity of in-your-face defense. After the Underdawg’s continued aggressive play sent Always a Brave to the line 10 times in the first five and half minutes, Jackson’s grit shined through, going on a 9-0 run to tie the game at 11 with 1:51 left in the first. The run, highlighted by a pair three-pointers from Terrandus Smith, relinquished some of the swagger the Bradley alumni had to start the game.
Quincy Scates gave Jackson, the Illinois Regional’s oldest team by average age, their biggest lead of the first half at 17-13 when his three-pointer from the top of the key dropped early in the second quarter. Never panicking, Always a Brave worked to find easy looks for Andrew Warren, who sunk threes on back to back possession to release the pent-up roars of the Carver Arena crowd.
Always a Brave trailed 36-30 around halfway through the third quarter thanks to three straight high percentage conversions from the Underdawgs. But riding the momentum of Bielfeldt’s third quarter three and an aggressive layup from Nate Kennell to end the third, Bradley’s beloved wouldn’t let any 4th quarter dramatics happen again.
Brown elicited one of the loudest responses from the Carver Arena crowd all night when he caused Underdawgs five-foot-three guard Anthony Sampson to stumble, giving the 3-time all-MVC guard more than enough room to sink a three. At 57-46, it was the largest lead of the night for Bradley’s alumni.
Brown scored six of Always a Brave’s next eight, which left them two points shy of the 69 points needed to win with the Elam Ending. With Jackson down 67-50, everyone wondered if they would see a comeback from the gritty Underdawgs, similar to Bradley’s unbelievable turnaround at the end against the Chicago Hoopville Warriors on Saturday.
The only similarity between the two nights turned out to be Marcellus Sommerville sinking the game-winning basket, this time a three from the left wing to send Always a Brave dancing into the round of 16 against third-seeded Boeheim’s Army.
“Just like we talked about, staying relaxed when we run our stuff. I think we were capable of that and trying to stay in the moment and not get too far ahead of ourselves,” Sommerville said about being ahead by approximately the same margin that they were behind heading into the Elam Ending against Chicago on Saturday night.
Always a Brave takes the court against Syracuse alumni Boeheim’s Army at 8 P.M. Wednesday night with an opportunity to advance to the quarterfinals in Dayton, Ohio next week. The Illinois Regional’s third-seed features multiple players with NBA experience, in addition to four-time TBT champion D.J. Kennedy.
“They got a lot of talent and that’s what we feed off of. That’s who we are. We don’t back down from anybody,” Ruffin said.
With hope of a deep run like the team had in 2016 where they went to the TBT semifinals, Always a Brave will not look to change much in their last game of 2021 in Peoria.
“We’re doing all the little things that help us win,” Ruffin said. “That’s a good team we played today.”