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Career nights from Leons and Hannah help Braves put out Flames

Malevy Leons and the Bradley bench celebrate a made 3-pointer. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

In the sports world, there’s a saying: “Never accept something in a win that you wouldn’t accept in a loss.”

That saying, made famous by two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan, rang true for Bradley men’s basketball on Wednesday night.

The Braves (18-8, 10-5 MVC) beat UIC (10-16, 3-12) 85-73 but struggled to handle the ball and defend in the second half, and head coach Brian Wardle wasn’t satisfied with that part of the performance.

After the buzzer sounded, the team stayed in the locker room for over 20 minutes discussing the game.

“The meeting was good,” Wardle said. “A positive meeting. It’s something you have to do when you’re part of a team and you’re leading men. It’s good that we got the win. There are big positives from the game, but some things we just want to clean up to be better. We’re really trying to be the best we can be.”

Wardle’s new lineup

Bradley started the game firing on all cylinders.

Wardle debuted a new starting lineup, swapping freshmen Demarion Burch and Almar Atlason. The adjustment gave the Braves three ball handlers and more speed on defense. The lineup change and productive bench play from redshirt junior Christian Davis prompted a 16-0 run to give Bradley a 19-7 lead.

“We hadn’t started well in the last two or three games,” Wardle said. “Maybe getting three guards on the floor lets us guard the dribble better. We were hoping it would be a little energy boost.”

A layup from UIC sophomore guard CJ Jones ended the Braves’ run and got the ball rolling for the Flames. The two teams traded buckets until UIC went on an 8-0 run of their own. During their run, the Flames did a much better job attacking the basket and finding seams within Bradley’s defense.

The Braves dominated the last three minutes of the half. Senior forward Darius Hannah and graduate senior Malevy Leons took control of the post and the offensive glass. The duo combined for seven of Bradley’s last 10 points, giving the Braves a 40-28 lead at the half.

Freshman impact

Wardle opened the second half with another adjustment. He continued with the starting lineup but switched Burch onto Jones, who scored 25 points in Bradley’s previous matchup with UIC and had 11 points in the first half.

Wardle’s adjustment worked.

Burch consistently beat Jones to his spots and made shots tough for him while also making an impact offensively. The freshman guard scored five quick points that helped the Braves’ lead balloon to 20.

“I thought he had some really good moments for us defensively,” Wardle said. “He’s a competitive young man and he competes and doesn’t back down from anyone. I love that about him.”

Career nights for the “Swat Team”

Bradley’s lead peaked at 24 points with 12 minutes remaining. Hannah and Leons continued to dominate the paint on both sides. Leons finished the game with 18 points, a career-high five blocks and a 9-9 showing from the stripe. Hannah had a career-high 21 points and added eight rebounds.

Leons, the reigning MVC Defensive Player of the Year, attributes his ability to rack up blocks to his roots in the Netherlands.

“I just try to jump as high as possible and swat it,” Leons said. “Back in the Netherlands, we get a lot of flies back home. I used to have to jump and swat them everywhere.”

Hannah found favorable mismatches against a smaller UIC team.

“I did my job and played my role,” Hannah said. “I just took advantage of a lot of their switching. They put little guys on me, so I took advantage of that.”

Disappointing finish

Bradley continued their offensive output throughout the second half, but defensively they took their foot off the gas. The Flames capitalized, penetrating through the Braves’ defense for easy looks at the rim.

UIC forward Isaiah Rivera scored 22 points in the second half after just five in the first. The senior helped the Flames cut the lead to 11 points with six minutes to go.

“I thought we did a fine job on him in the first half,” Wardle said. “In the second half, we didn’t defend well at all as a group. That’s maturity. We’ve got to keep maturing. Keeping the pedal down, sustaining a high level of focus, talk and energy on the defensive end.”

“I feel like once we were up 24, we’ve got to put our foot on their necks,” Leons added.

Bradley let it get close but ultimately pulled out the win to end their two-game losing streak. With Arch Madness on the horizon, the unit must continue to improve as the stakes get higher.

“We know what it takes to win in February,” Wardle said. “We know what it takes to win Arch Madness. We gotta still keep getting there as a group, as a unit. We’re not there yet. We’ve got to figure that out as a unit.”

The Braves are back in action on Sunday at Northern Iowa.

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