Following the dismissal of freshman forward Steph Gabriel and one-game suspension of junior guard Danya Kinsby, the Bradley men’s basketball team faced adverse circumstances and the challenge of a short bench heading into Saturday’s matchup versus Toledo.
Once they took the floor, it was hard to notice that anything was different, as eight players led the Braves to a 78-66 victory over the Rockets to finish the non-conference schedule with a record of 9-4.
“Great character win for that group in that locker room,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “Our identity came out, and it’s got to be sustained now.”
Bradley got the contributions it needed from the entire lineup, as six of the eight players who checked into the game scored and four found double-digits.
“We just had guys who just stepped up,” senior Nate Kennell said. “Every day in practice, everybody is important, top guy to the bottom guy … it just shows our team, how each guy when they’re called upon just needs to be ready.”
The Braves’ backcourt led the way to victory, with senior Darrell Brown rising to the occasion by scoring a season-high 29 points on 9-21 shooting, going a perfect 9-9 at the free throw line.
“[It was] just being in attack mode, I think from the first guy to the last guy, all of us were attacking,” Brown said.
Defensively, Brown guarded Toledo’s leading scorer Marreon Jackson for most of the game and held him to 14 points, three below his season average.
“Darrell rises to those challenges, it gets him kinda going too, as a competitor, so I thought he did a great job defensively too,” Wardle said. “His whole level of play kinda rose up.”
Fellow senior Kennell also stepped up, scoring 15 points to go with nine rebounds.
With Kingsby suspended, Wardle tabbed freshman guard Antonio Thomas to make his first start of his young career. Thomas responded by posting a career-high 14 points to go with three assists.
“The only thing that was going through my head before the game was just to not let my team down, and this is my moment to show what I can do,” Thomas said. “My team was behind me the whole way.”
The freshman certainly showed he was capable of jumping into the rotation. Entering the game, the most minutes Thomas had played in a game was 12. In the victory he played 34.
When Thomas was on the floor, he didn’t hesitate to try and score, securing his 14 points on 4-7 shooting. Most of those shots came around the rim, where he often drew contact to get to the free throw line, where he went 6-8.
Thomas has played behind Brown, a fellow Memphis native, for much of the season. According to Wardle, the two have developed a special relationship that has helped bolster Thomas’ growth as a player as the season has progressed.
“Darrell is very hard on Antonio, but in a good way,” Wardle said. “I think DB kinda wants to pass on his legacy to Antonio of how to work and how to prepare, because Darrell is one of the best I’ve been around in the work ethic and the preparation going into games.”
After his first 20-point performance of the campaign, Brown is keeping his focus on the big picture with his confidence unshaken after some games throughout the season.
“That’s just one game,” Brown said. “But at the same time, I think I’ve proved myself in my three years here, so I don’t think nobody should doubt what I can do.”
The Braves will head into Tuesday’s Missouri Valley opener against Drake with nine available players after Kingsby returns from his suspension.
The healing process appears to be going well for junior forward Elijah Childs, who has missed the last two games with a broken right middle finger. While there is no set timeline other than the original 3-6 week projection, the Braves hope their leading scorer could return as early as next Saturday versus Northern Iowa.
For now, Bradley has its sights set on the Bulldogs, who will come to Peoria with a record of 10-3. Tip-off is slated for 6 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.