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Flex Appeal: Braves show no mercy in largest D-1 home win in team history

Bradley’s Darius Hannah throws down a dunk in the Braves’ win over Evansville at Carver Arena. Photo by Kayla Jaskulski/Bradley Athletics

The Bradley Braves men’s basketball record book is going to get a workout very soon if it hasn’t already.

On the heels of a 22-point home victory over Valparaiso, the Braves came into their Missouri Valley Conference game against lowly Evansville (4-14, 0-7 MVC) on Wednesday night at Carver Arena as the heavy favorites, especially after the Purple Aces announced they’d only be playing with seven scholarship players due to injuries.

However, few could have expected the utter throttling that the Braves put on in a 91-46 victory, tied for the largest home win against a Division I opponent and the largest win over an Missouri Valley Conference opponent in program history.

It was most definitely a historic night for Bradley (12-6, 5-2) and a type of performance where they yet again flexed their muscles, as perhaps the team to beat in the Valley.

How much did they flex, you might ask?

Malevy Leons high fives his teammate. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Bradley’s 91 points are the most points they’ve scored against a Division I opponent since January 15, 2020, a road win over Missouri State. The Braves’ win streak at Carver Arena reached 17 games – the longest in program history – and is now among the top 10 current home win streaks in the country in Division I. Lastly, the Braves continued their dominance of the Purple Aces, winning their 10th game in a row against their conference foes.

The Braves didn’t spare the Aces many chances to keep it close and senior forward Malevy Leons was the one to set the game’s tone, with a pair of triples in the first 72 seconds.

“Their mentality was good, the focus like I said,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said of the team’s mindset paying off from the start of the game. “I want “loose with focus” before games. Loose smiling, cracking a joke here or there but I don’t like goofy and I thought we were loose with focus and dialed in for the game.”

It was a sign of things to come, as Bradley knocked down not two, four, six or even eight 3-pointers in the first half. The Braves splashed in nine deep balls –a season-high for 3-pointers in a half– from all over the court in the first frame.

Most impressively, it only took them 11 minutes and 11 seconds to do so and it included a four-minute lull with no makes from the field at all.

After Leons, Bradley’s guards entered the 3-point party, with a triple from junior point guard Duke Deen and a pair of 3’s from sophomore guard Connor Hickman to go up 29-15 with 9:10 left in the first half.

Hickman finished with a season-high 15, a relief to the starting lineup stalwart who had been muddling through a frustrating stretch offensively. 

“I had to change up some things I was doing outside of basketball,” Hickman said, “[I was] still getting shots up, the ball felt good in practice and when I was working out but I had to switch up some things I was doing to be more focused. Like yeah practice is over, but this is still kind of a job. So I switched up some things I do at night, like my nighttime routine and what I’m doing before practice and I think that’s helped my focus a lot more and I feel a lot better out in the game.”

Connor Hickman stares down opponent. Photo by Jenna Zeise

“[Hickman] got going early, he was in attack mode, got to the foul line, was smiling out there too so it was a good game for him,” Wardle added.

Even junior point guard James “Pop” Weathers got in on the act and made his first 3-pointer of the season at the 11:31 mark to double up the visitors 22-11. Deen, Hickman and senior guard Ville Tahvanainen all hit the jackpot as well from behind the arc once more in the opening half, helping Bradley to a 46-30 halftime advantage.

Meanwhile, the Purple Aces hung around as much as they could, making four threes and shooting 48 percent in the opening frame. However, the visitors couldn’t string together consecutive baskets for the first 12 minutes of the game until Evansville’s Antoine Smith Jr. threw down a dunk and his teammate Marvin Coleman made a floater to make it 32-19 at the 7:48 mark of the first, amidst Bradley’s 3-point showcase.

“We executed our game plan offensively,” Wardle said. “Now defensively, I thought our intensity wasn’t very good; we didn’t show on the ball screens very well, we didn’t know personnel and made a lot of mistakes defensively. So the whole challenge at halftime was about defense, I don’t think I talked that much about offense.”

The halftime talk was well received and the Braves began to put the Purple Aces away in dominating fashion.

After pummeling the visitors with 3’s in the first half, Bradley began,wreaking levels of havoc in the post that would make Shaquille O’Neal jealous. Senior forward Ja’Shon Henry brought an appetizer with a slam dunk to make it 56-31 Braves with 14:56 to go. Not long afterward, junior forward Darius Hananh brought the main course and dessert with back-to-back slams of his own, including a monster alley-oop that induced a roar from the Carver Arena crowd. 

Evansville, most recently in the national news for upsetting No. 1-ranked Kentucky on the road in 2019, had no chance to remotely hang close, much less pull off another big upset, with the Braves after those slams. 

“I think that’s the emphasis every game though: come out, punch them in the mouth, and let them know that we’re not going away for all 40 minutes, no matter what they do,” Hickman said.

Bradley’s effort defensively and in the post offensively was a spectacle to behold. The Braves looked in a league of their own by forcing turnover after turnover and missed shot after missed shot. In the second half, the Purple Aces shot 4-21 from the field and didn’t make a 3-pointer.

“In the first half, they scored a little too easy so [in] the second half a big focus was just guarding,” Mast said. “If you get stops, it just makes the game so much easier.”

“I challenged them to keep [Evansville] under 50 [points],” Wardle said. “So I was very proud, that shows a big step for us maturity-wise and focus-wise to sustain a high level of energy and effort defensively without looking at the scoreboard.”

By the under-8 media timeout, a three from sophomore guard Zek Montgomery gave the Braves a 24-5 run out of the halftime break. For the next five minutes, the Braves continued to batter Evansville in the paint after their successful trips on the defensive end.

“I thought in the second half, we let our defense ignite our offense instead of in the first half where we were only guarding if we were hitting shots,” Hickman said. “The second half, we came out and got multiple stops and the offense just kept flowing after that.”

A perfectly executed pick and roll led to Bradley’s newest player, freshman forward Ahmet Jonovic, scoring his first points of the game and capped off a 17-0 scoring run following the Montgomery triple. Indeed, the Braves had outscored the Aces 41-5 in the second half by that point and smiles abounded from seemingly every Brave after each basket.

Bradley’s Christian Davis, Goanar Biliew and Connor Linke shake hands. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

“There were some points [where we flexed on them] in the second half,” Hickman said. “I thought the second half was really focused and we really gave it to them there.”

The only thing left to do was to let their starters earn some rest and let their reserves earn some playing time as Bradley led by 52 at one point before a late run from Evansville. Every player for the Braves saw the floor on Wednesday night, – save for guard Christian Davis who is out 2-4 weeks with an ankle injury and redshirt freshman Sulaiman Agiste – with nine of them scoring, and six finishing in double figures.

Behind Hickman’s 15, Mast and Henry chipped in 14 and 12, respectively, followed by 11 from Deen, 10 from Hannah, and 10 from Leons. The Braves shot 55 percent from the field and committed just six turnovers, which tied a season low.

After two straight explosive wins at home, the Braves’ head coach and his crew will have their hands full with Missouri Valley Conference preseason favorite Drake (13-5, 4-3 MVC) and current MVC leader Indiana State (13-5, 6-1 MVC) this coming Saturday and Wednesday night, respectively.

“They’re good wins. I like our continuity, our chemistry, our confidence…that’s a positive,” Wardle said. “But you gotta sustain that from 7 to 9 PM on Saturday night and I think that’s what we’ve really been working hard on after [the loss to Murray State] was the mental side of things.”

If the Braves’ learned any lessons tonight, it’s to try and copy and paste their mindset from Wednesday night all throughout the season, according to Hickman.

“We’ll have to apply it to road games too, that same intimidation and flexing mindset.”

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