Bradley’s 22nd appearance in the National Invitational Tournament was a short one.
Losing 81-62 to the second-seeded Wisconsin Badgers in the first round of the NIT late Tuesday night, the Braves struggled to keep their Big Ten foe away from the free throw line and committed too many turnovers to keep their dream season alive.
“We made too many mental mistakes defensively and too many breakdowns; fouling hurt our momentum [too],” Bradley’s eighth year head coach Brian Wardle said afterwards. “And [number] 22, [Steven] Crowl, unbelievable game. Unbelievable.”
The 7-foot Wisconsin junior forward played his best and could be argued as the sole reason why the Badgers are moving on as opposed to the Braves. Averaging just over 11 points a game entering the night, Crowl took a sledgehammer to his previous career high of 25, scoring 36 and falling one rebound short of a double-double.
It was almost as if Bradley had somehow angered a higher power.
“I swear, every time I’ve been in this building, I’ve had a bank-three hit on me and that’s a sign from the basketball gods that it’s not with you that day,” Wardle said, exacerbated.
“I think once he saw one or two threes go in and he banked the one in [you’re thinking] ‘Hey, the harder you play the luckier you get,” Badger’s head coach Greg Gard said.
Before Crowl did his dirty work, the Braves were hoping to play with a chip on their shoulder and restore the success they had just a few weeks ago. By the first media timeout, Bradley was not going to back down.
Trailing Wisconsin 11-8 with under 15 minutes to play in the first half, Bradley let the Badgers bat them around for the next five minutes. As the home team keyed up a 15-5 run, the Braves’ flaws were starting to become large targets that Wisconsin fired upon at will.
Down 26-13 at the 9:45 mark thanks to Crowl’s first of five makes from deep, Bradley had a response of their own. The Braves’ sophomore guard Zek Montgomery’s old-fashioned three-point play, junior forward Rienk Mast’s first bucket, and senior forward Malevy Leons’ third-chance make inside the paint repositioned Bradley down just six.
In the pursuit of reaching the 1,000 career-point threshold, Mast’s second bucket came at the six minute mark while Bradley trailed 28-25.
Both teams traded buckets for the rest of the way of the first half. Bradley, despite foul trouble to Hannah (3) Mast (2) and Bradley’s 19-year-old Serbian forward Ahmet Jonovic (2), alongside Crowl’s 19 first half points, positioned the Braves behind 40-35 at the break.
Dealing with foul trouble didn’t make things easy on Wardle and the head coach covered all the areas why.
“I had to go out of sync with my rotations because of foul trouble,” Wardle said. “Darius Hannah was playing great, I just couldn’t keep him on the floor because every time he came in, the whistle blew on him in a minute.”
“It was frustrating because we’re coming from Arch Madness where nothing’s called.” Wardle added. “21 team fouls [tonight] was an adjustment for us and we didn’t adjust very well.”
With their season on the line, the Braves once again spent the first early minutes matching Wisconsin on each level. Unfortunately for Bradley, Crowl’s hand was still red-hot.
When the 15:07 mark came around, the junior had just hit another trey and pushed the Wisconsin lead up to double digits. Not to mention, Crowl also added a couple buckets in the paint and got to the charity stripe seven times, making all seven.
“We changed our ball screen coverage later in the game and hard showed to take away him [popping off the pick and roll], it didn’t matter; he made a couple tough ones again,” Wardle said. “You need guys to step up and make big plays, make big shots and maybe do things they haven’t done in the regular season and he did that today.”
From there, the Braves never really got back in the game, due to cold shooting (Bradley shot 5-23 from behind the arc) and losing the turnover battle 11-3.
“I’ve been in [Wisconsin] at a young age, since [I was] 17,” Wardle said. “Wisconsin doesn’t turn the ball over and they don’t foul. That’s what they’re known for.”
“Mental toughness and smart teams win in March,” Wardle added. “I tell my team that all the time. You got to play smart and we weren’t. Wisconsin was a smart team today.”
The highlight of the night for the Braves was a 3-pointer from Mast with four minutes remaining which finally got the Dutch big man past 1,000 career points, as he ended the season just over the threshold with 1,001. Mast led the Braves with a 14-point, 12-rebound double-double while Montgomery added 12 points.
Mast’s accolade couldn’t save Bradley’s season, solidifying their 25-10 record. But in a season where Bradley won its first MVC regular season championship in 27 years, held one of the longest home win streaks in the NCAA, sold out a game at Carver Arena and had two players pass the 1,000-point mark, they’ll be remembered by what they did as a whole.
“It’s hard losing this game for our group because we’re a very close group [and] very connected team,” Wardle said. “They’re a joy to coach all year and I thanked them in that locker room because they put a lot of hard work in.”
The season is over and the book has been completed. However, the pen is back up already as the offseason is already underway with many players across the NCAA already entering their names in the transfer portal.
Ja’Shon Henry, who had four points and five rebounds on Tuesday, is the lone Brave who’s exhausted his eligibility. Mast and senior guard Ville Tahvanainen are set to graduate academically, but have another year of eligibility if they choose to use it.