Injuries can never be predicted. Bradley men’s basketball (3-1) knows this all too well.
“You don’t become a family until you go through strong adversity, and we’re going through it right now,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “We just gotta come together more.”
The Braves needed to come together in their 73-60 win over Southeast Missouri State (SEMO) on Saturday afternoon, as the team was missing junior forward Rienk Mast as well as sophomore guards Zek Montgomery and Connor Hickman, the latter of which was ruled out with an ankle injury just before game time. Montgomery and Hickman were averaging 10 points per game as starters.
As if they needed another blow, Wardle’s group suffered perhaps the biggest loss of all against the Redhawks at Carver Arena. Senior forward Ja’Shon Henry took a hard foul from SEMO’s Kobe Clark on a drive with 5:48 left in the game and suffered a mild concussion after falling to the court. The fifth-year player missed 19 games last season, also due to a concussion.
“[I] love him and want him to be healthy,” Wardle said. “That’s all I care about.”
In their absence, other Braves needed to step up and deliver, and that came in the form of senior guard Ville Tahvanainen. Getting his first starting minutes of the season, the Finland native put up 15 points in nearly 34 minutes of play, displaying the versatility in his roles.
“Throughout my three-and-a-half years here it’s always been ‘next man up’,” Tahvanainen said. “The coaches always tell all the players to just be ready. You never know when your opportunity might come.”
Typically known for his sharpshooting, Tahvanainen was just 1-9 from three in the contest, instead getting it done with cuts that led to easy looks inside. That seemed to be the theme for all the Braves, as they had 40 points in the paint compared to just 14 from the Redhawks.
The other workhorse for Bradley was senior Malevy Leons, who nearly put up a double-double in 37 minutes of play with 15 points and nine rebounds. The forward also added four blocks, a season-high.
“Times like this are where we need stuff like that from Malevy,” Tahvanainen said. “When guys go down, we need guys to step up minutes-wise as well. Malevy did a good job today stepping into that role.”
Junior forward Darius Hannah got things going with an emphatic dunk to start the game, which was quickly followed by two threes on the other end from the Redhawks. The three-ball would be a staple of SEMO’s first half, as they shot over 63 percent from downtown in the first 20 minutes.
With 5:26 left in the first half and SEMO nursing a four-point lead, a loose ball was scooped up by junior guard Pop Weathers, who took it to the hole for a three-point play. As if on cue, Clark hit a fall-away 3-pointer as the shot clock expired a minute later to bring the lead back to four.
“It’s a hard team to play against because of how they spread you out and shoot so many threes,” Wardle said. “When they get hot, they’re hard to stop.”
Still, the home team didn’t back down. Trailing 36-34 with two minutes to play in the period, junior guard Duke Deen drove into the lane and kicked it out to Leons at the top of the key, who knocked down a three to give the Braves their first lead since Hannah’s dunk in the beginning of the game. Bradley took that lead and ran with it, closing out the half on a 10-0 run to make it 42-36.
Out of the locker room, the Redhawks’ hot hand cooled off. SEMO shot 2-15 to start the half and finished just 1-10 from three, a stark contrast to the seven shots they made in their first nine attempts from downtown.
“[At] halftime we decided to dial in,” Leons said. “We obviously saw in the first half they can make some threes, so we wanted to take that away from them and step up defensively.”
With just under 13 minutes to go and both teams not sinking a basket for three minutes, Deen dribbled to the elbow and hit a fadeaway shot to make it 50-40, tying the Braves’ biggest lead up to that point. The Troy transfer finished with 12 points, five assists, six rebounds and three steals – the last three categories all being season highs.
“You can talk about [Leons] and Ville but I thought Duke Deen was our most efficient player for us,” Wardle said. “Probably the best game we’ve had from our point guards was today.”
SEMO brought the game back to within four but at the 4:20 mark, Deen threw a lob to Hannah who slammed it home, igniting the home crowd and giving the momentum back to the Braves. They rode the wave to a three-point play from Weathers and a reverse layup from Tahvanainen, controlling the pace on their way to a 73-60 final score. Five Braves finished in double figures.
“Our defense ignites our offense,” Tahvanainen said. “In the second half we did a really good job guarding the 3-point line and that was huge.”
Bradley shot just 1-9 from beyond the arc in the second half, but were able to hold the Redhawks to a 20 percent mark from the field in that same frame. SEMO’s guard duo of Phillip Russell and Chris Harris put up 13 and 14 points respectively, but Wardle thought there was much improvement from the Braves on the defensive side as the halves changed over.
“Our defense held strong and our rebounding held strong,” Wardle said. “That’s what you have to do to win when the ball’s not going in for you, and that’s a perfect lesson for our guys.”
It’s a bittersweet win, as the loss of Henry will certainly be on the mind of every player, coach and fan alike.
“We’ll find a way,” Wardle said. “That’s what we have to do as competitors is find a way to compete, find a way to win games and that’s what I get paid to do as a coach. But my heart’s with Ja’Shon right now.”
Next, the Braves will travel to Cancun, Mexico – without Henry – to take on the No. 13-ranked Auburn Tigers in the Cancun Challenge on Tuesday at 5 p.m.