It was so close you could almost taste it. A win snatched away in the closing minutes – a scene all too familiar for Bradley fans.
“Belmont made the big plays down the stretch and we didn’t,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “Our offense, we couldn’t make the big shots. We just did not sustain [the lead] and it cost us when it was on the line.”
While the Bruins (9-5, 2-1) indeed “made the big plays”, capitalizing on the Braves’ mistakes would be a bit more accurate to describe Bradley’s 63-60 loss in Nashville Wednesday night.
After leading 50-41 with 11:17 to go in the second half, the Braves (9-5, 2-1) attempted to keep their foot on the gas but missed the pedal continuously. Seizing the opportunity was Belmont guard Drew Friberg.
Friberg, who finished with 21 points, nailed two 3-pointers as the Bruins used an 8-0 run to dwindle the Braves’ lead down to one at the 8:50 mark. Minutes later, the graduate forward went 3-for-3 at the charity stripe and Belmont guard Ben Sheppard cashed in a triple to take a 55-54 lead with six minutes remaining.
Even when Belmont recaptured the lead, Bradley had multiple opportunities to kill the momentum. An emphatic dunk from sophomore Zek Montgomery at the four-minute mark helped the Braves fight back, and a spinning layup from senior Malevy Leons put the team ahead 60-59 with two minutes to play.
Just like before, simple mistakes cost Bradley what could have been their best start to conference play since 2008-09.
Three straight possessions allowed Belmont to drain the clock and take a 61-60 lead with less than a minute to play. A dunk brought the Bruins’ advantage to three and Bradley set up their final possession.
Braves junior guard Duke Deen launched a trey and so did Connor Hickman. The sophomore’s rattled around the rim and sputtered out. An inbound to the corner gave Deen one more chance, but the Braves’ loss was sealed on the impending miss.
“As I watched it, I felt he made it,” Deen said of Hickman’s shot. “Saw it go in and roll around. It just rimmed out.”
There was visible frustration afterwards, as road wins in the Valley don’t come easy. The Braves were on the cusp of one, and the disappointment of coming up short was evident.
“We weren’t great with our principles, on both ends,” Deen said. “Ultimately that caught up with us.”
In the loss, the Braves were led by junior Rienk Mast and senior Malevy Leons. Mast finished with 12 points and just four boards while Leons added 11 points and five boards. Bradley shot just 5-for-20 from beyond the arc and only attempted three free throws.
With the loss, the Braves drop to 2-1 in Valley play. Next up for the group is a return home to face another MVC newcomer in Illinois-Chicago.
The Flames, coming off a home win versus Illinois State, will duel with Bradley in Peoria on New Year’s Eve. Ending the year on a bright spot and keeping the 14-game home win streak intact will be the goal for the Braves on Saturday.