There was cautious optimism on Bradley’s side in Redbird Arena when the Braves (8-10) took a 20-point first half lead against their Interstate 74 rival Illinois State (9-8).
After seeing multiple games where the Braves seemed like they had the game in hand, only to see it evaporate in the second half, the trend continued on Sunday night as the Redbirds dominated the last 20 minutes and stole a 74-65 victory in Normal, their second-largest comeback in program history.
After leading 35-15 with just under six and half minutes left in the first half, the entire Braves team hit a roadblock offensively for the rest of the contest. Meanwhile, Illinois State guard Antonio Reeves led an offensive explosion with 16 of his 24 points coming in the second half.
“It’s been our season,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “Inconsistent play. Great first half; embarrassing second half.”
Braves guard Terry Roberts, playing in his first War on I-74 game, exploded for 14 points in the first 14 minutes of the contest. Behind four 3-pointers from the junior, the Braves played like they were shot out of a cannon, showcasing an uptempo offense that led to repeated open looks from behind the arc.
While the Redbirds endured a stretch of 1-9 shooting from the field, the Braves went on a 15-2 run, capped off by a layup from graduate guard Mikey Howell, in a five and a half minute span before the midway mark of the first half. By halftime, 21 of Bradley’s 33 first half shots came from deep, with the team sinking eight treys and dishing out 10 assists on their first 15 made field goals.
“We haven’t played great basketball all year, but that was the worst 15 minutes of basketball we’ve played all year,” Illinois State head coach Dan Muller said.
The Redbirds managed to peck their way back into the game with an 11-5 run before the break to trim the BU lead to 40-26, despite not making a field goal in the last four minutes.
“Ultimately, [their comeback] started at the end of the first half with the fouls,” Wardle said. “And they came back with free throws.”
In similar fashion to Bradley’s double-digit lead disappearing against Loyola Chicago on Jan. 8, the Braves and Roberts were stymied coming out of halftime. With Muller giving lengthy forward Kendall Lewis the duties of guarding Roberts in the second half, the Braves struggled mightily in matching their offensive output from the first half.
With a layup from Reeves nearly five minutes into the second half, the Redbirds had gone on a 22-8 run that spanned both halves and cut the Braves lead to 43-37.
Similar to how ice makes a bruise’s swelling go down, the Braves all-of-a-sudden cold shooting caused their lead to decrease further. Bradley turned in percentages of 32% from the field, 23% from 3-point range, and 55% from the free throw line in the second half.
As Illinois State continued to make shots and force turnovers, Bradley returned to their first half bread and butter of shooting threes. The results were not the same and led to a stark contrast in body language between the rivals.
“Guys got comfortable and then things got tough and we all went our separate directions,” Wardle said. “So we’ve got to correct that. I haven’t seen that [poor of body language] in a while.”
“[Muller] wanted to make sure we didn’t drop our heads because in the first half we were dropping our heads a couple of times,” Illinois State guard Josiah Strong said.
The Redbirds did the opposite of that in their effort to stop a three-game losing skid and continue a three-game win streak in the rivalry’s series. Sophomore forward Rienk Mast and freshman guard Connor HIckman converted on back to back layups to give the Braves some breathing room at 47-40 but consecutive triples from Lewis and Reeves before the under-12 media timeout put Bradley on thin ice.
“We didn’t sprint back in transition a couple times,” Wardle said. “We broke down defensively a lot off the dribble. The things we talked about at halftime, we didn’t do any of them in the second half.”
Mast finished with his sixth double-double of the season, posting 17 points and 11 rebounds. Roberts’ led the Braves in scoring for the 10th time this season with 22 points.
Two 3-pointers from Strong sandwiched between two more triples from Reeves gave ISU a 57-49 lead with under 7 minutes to go in the contest. Meanwhile, the Braves endured a five minute long scoring drought before a Mast layup with 6:22 left. Up to that point, the Redbirds outscored Bradley 31-9 in the second half.
“It was tough,” Lewis said about defending Roberts and the Braves. “It was me just sitting down and knowing I got four people behind me ready to help whenever they can. I felt like the whole team defense that we played was contagious and we all stepped up.”
Bradley did not make their first free throw of the game until Rienk Mast went 1-2 at the line with 4:50 left in the second half. The Braves 6-12 mark at the free throw line was the first game that they had shot 50% or worse from stripe since Nov. 20 against Brown. Illinois State managed to make 16 of their 24 free throws.
A triple from Mast brought Bradley to within four at 61-57 with 3:14 on the clock but a 9-3 run from four different Redbird scorers put the game out of reach.
‘It was a tough team to coach in the second half,” Wardle said. “The whole team was separate and in their own world. We couldn’t get them on the same page and that’s what happens. I’ve never given up a lead like that in my coaching career but if you coach long enough, you’re always going to have a first.”
With the loss, Bradley falls to 2-4 in MVC play. To turn their record around, Mast believes that the team needs to respond to second-half adversity better.
“I think their length and physicality really bothered us in the second half,” Mast said. “They kept us out of the paint and then our shots didn’t fall. We let our offense dictate our defense and when our shots didn’t fall, we saw some guys just quit sometimes.”
“This was more of a beginning of the year team,” Wardle added. “I knew Illinois State would make a run but I thought we would make our run and push back. We did not push back at all like we have in Valley play.”
Bradley’s’ silver lining is that senior forward Ja’Shon Henry returned to the court after missing six games with a head injury suffered on Dec. 18 against Saint Joseph’s. The Saskatchewan native led Bradley in scoring with 15 the last time that the Braves and Redbirds clashed back in the 2020-21 season. However, the return of the Braves’ senior leader did not make much of an impact in his return, as Henry went 1-5 from the field in 11 minutes on the court.
The Braves will look to answer lingering questions about their ability to play with a lead and get back on track when they travel to Drake on Wednesday night at 7 p.m.
“We’ve got to find a way to stay together through tough times,” Mast said. “That’s just it.”