High fives on one side, pointing fingers on the other.
That was the difference between the Bradley (5-3, 1-0 MVC) and Northern Iowa (2-4, 0-1 MVC) sideline in the second half of the Braves’ 68-53 victory Wednesday night at Carver Arena. Bradley junior forward Rienk Mast relished the atmosphere and physicality after the Valley opener.
“I’m just tired, they gave us a run for our money,” Mast said. “They play really well, I just know that was a good one; that was a good battle.”
Despite the 15-point victory, the game was far from a blowout, with Bradley’s Duke Deen and Northern Iowa’s Bowen Born putting on a magnificent back-and-forth display.
“I thought you saw two really good guards under six feet today,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “[Deen] knows he has the green light with me, especially when he gets going. I have no problem taking some heat check shots, and he did and he made them.”
The sophomore Born led the visitors with 22 points in the losing effort while his junior counterpart Deen scored 18 to lead the Braves.
After being in a small 40-35 hole in the second half-Deen and Mast helped the Braves explode in a 33-13 run to end the game, outscoring the Panthers by 16 in the second frame.
Changing the game’s pace and riding the hot hand was a big reason why.
“First half was a grind-it-out [performance],” Wardle said. “[In the second half], we kept going to the glass offensively, we got second-chance points and created some turnovers to lead to transition and so the pace was better.”
Entering the game, Northern Iowa brought in the highly-touted Born, who was averaging just over 20 points per game, and sophomore forward Tytan Anderson, who led the MVC in rebounding prior to Wednesday’s game. Forcing Born to take contested shots and crashing the glass to neutralize Anderson was the game plan going in.
“We saw [Anderson’s] film and that he goes after everything,” Mast said. “One of our key things was just trying to block him out. Personally, with the brace still on I can’t jump as high, so I got to be a little smart.”
To begin the see-saw-like first half, the Panthers took hold of the momentum early. UNI held a 7-2 lead early in the first half before a 6-0 run put Bradley in the driver’s seat. The Braves misfired on their first four 3-point attempts before sophomore Christian Davis knocked down the first trey for Bradley out of a media timeout.
Junior forward Darius Hannah committed his third turnover 10 minutes into the game, turning into a basket from UNI’s Trey Campbell and allowing the Panthers to edge back in front. The Braves jumped back on top 25-20 after a Leons triple at the 5:09 mark of the first half before Northern Iowa responded with a 10-1 run shortly before halftime. Deen cashed in his first 3-pointer of the game to get the Braves to trail 30-29 at the intermission.
Out of the locker room, Wardle made the change to start Davis over Hannah in the second half.
“I liked just having another shooter on the floor to start,” Wardle said. “I thought Christian was playing really well and thought he was really good defensively in the first half.”
Despite the change, Bradley took their time to settle in. The Braves again missed their first four 3-point attempts, but the Panthers’ 40-35 lead started to shrivel up.
Bradley sophomore guard Connor Hickman used a smooth dribble drive floater and Deen added a pull-up jumper from the left wing to get the Braves within one at the 13:29 mark. As the crowd began to stand and put the pressure on, the Panthers turned from predators to prey.
Coming down to the end of the shot clock, Hickman hoisted up a three from the corner. As the red lights lit the frame of the glass, Hickman’s shot fell through the basket and Bradley took the 42-40 lead at the 12:34 mark.
Bradley senior guard Ville Tahvanainen used the glass to extend the lead with a reverse layup beneath the basket, and Hannah capped the 11-0 run with a one-hand jam to force a Panthers timeout as the Braves’ faithful clamored over the 46-40 lead.
Bradley never relinquished the lead going forward and the Braves completed their first Valley win of the season with a 68-53 final.
Afterwards, Wardle thought that this was Deen’s best game.
“He played some heavy minutes, he felt good, he really guarded and I think that’s maybe where I’m the most proud,” Wardle said. “His defense is improving and Duke’s just getting better and better defensively.”
Mast’s performance was not to be forgotten. Playing in his second game this season, the Netherlands native put up 13 points and 11 rebounds, completing Bradley’s third consecutive double-double. Never satisfied, Mast still found areas to improve upon.
“That was a tough game, I struggled a bit for sure,” Mast said. “Just getting my wind back, like my conditioning, I could notice that I’ve been out for a little bit.”
“I take pride in being the most basketball-conditioned guy on the team, so it’s tough coming back from an injury,” Mast added. “I’ll be alright, [I’m] not too worried about it.”
Next up for the Braves will be a bigger test. A trip to Springfield, Missouri awaits the team as they’ll take on Missouri State (4-3, 1-0 MVC). The Bears have won the last four versus the Braves, and Wardle is 0-7 in the first Valley road games of the season. The group hopes to change those tides on Saturday.
“It’s important to get the home win, but it’s tough to win on the road,” Deen said.
“From our history, we’ve always had a tough away game over there, so it’s gonna be a dog fight.” Mast added.