When Bradley listed two Southeastern Conference (SEC) teams to its non-conference schedule this year, the anticipation on the Hilltop was palpable.
On Tuesday evening though, the squad that played against No. 13 Auburn to begin the Cancun Challenge was vastly different than what fans had anticipated.
“Losing three physical, tough defensive rebounders, obviously it’s going to hurt any team,” Bradley sophomore guard Connor Hickman said.
In the Braves’ 85-64 loss to the Tigers, they were without junior forward Rienk Mast (sprained MCL), graduate forward Ja’Shon Henry, who remains in concussion protocol and sophomore guard Zek Montgomery (hand). Hickman, whose ankle kept him out versus Southeast Missouri State, was slotted back in the lineup.
“I thought he was very aggressive to start the game and gave our team some confidence making shots,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “Hopefully his ankle recovers well tonight. He’s our best perimeter defender so we definitely need him out there.”
The sophomore guard led the Braves in scoring with 15 alongside junior guard Duke Deen. Hickman scored 13 in the first half while Deen scored 13 in the second. Junior guard Malevy Leons was glued to Tiger defenders all game, but finished with a modest 11 for the team.
“Obviously it always feels good to hit shots, right? I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like to hit shots,” Hickman said. “You can’t ever be satisfied though. Yeah, it feels good to be back out there, but there’s always things to work on.”
Auburn wasted no time out of the gate as the Tigers jumped out to a 12-2 lead and a 25-14 advantage at the second media timeout. The favorite’s lead grew larger, as their size caused mayhem for the Braves on offense. Entering the contest averaging nine turnovers a game, Bradley had 10 in the first half.
“I thought we bobbled the ball a couple times [and] didn’t chin the ball; we weren’t strong and had some careless passes,” Wardle said. “Yeah, 10 turnovers at halftime; you’re not setting yourself up to beat Auburn.”
Hickman knocked down his third triple of the game at the nine-minute mark in the first half, cutting the Auburn lead down to seven. Chants of ‘defense’ were volleyed between both fan bases in attendance, but the Tigers offense is what did the trick. Auburn buoyed out to a 15-point lead, but went into halftime ahead 45-32.
Out of the locker room, Bradley allowed Auburn’s lead to swell to 20, but the Braves would answer yet again. A 6-0 run drew the deficit back to 14, but the Tigers stepped on the gas again and comfortably ran it up.
Deen knocked down a triple to bring Bradley to a 68-55 hole, but Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl commanded the Tigers out to another 20-point advantage. Auburn, which had 12 players enter the game, relied on its depth to put the Braves away and led by as many as 26 at one point.
“They’re very talented; they play really well [and] they really compete,” Wardle said. “We did not match that today for 40 minutes at all.”
“Defensively we broke down too much,” Wardle added. “We got to be more physical in the post and we had to have a better ball pressure. We did not do that consistently at all.”
Auburn’s bench outscored Bradley’s 41-12, while the Tigers had five players reach double figures. The balanced attack and physical identity created a mismatch for the Braves’ slimmed lineup.
Bradley was winless a year ago on its trip to the Virgin Islands, and Hickman knows that a split on this year’s trip is all within reach.
“We got to put together halves,” Hickman said. “I think we had segments today that were good; we would compete for four minutes and then it would trail off. I think tomorrow we got to compete for a whole 40 minutes.”
The Braves (3-2) will look for a split on their Cancun trip when they face Liberty (2-3) today at 5 p.m.