A full-court heave, an inbound frenzy and a showdown between two in-state schools.
“I knew he was going to make it, it was just a feeling,” Bradley junior guard Duke Deen said. “I’ve been in a lot of games like this and [the ball] always finds a way to go in.”
In Bradley’s thrilling 56-54 victory over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, there was more than mania in the final seconds. A battle between two old friends was in full swing.
SIUE head coach Brian Barone, a former teammate of Bradley head coach Brian Wardle at Marquette, put his team in multiple positions to steal a win, but all the home team could muster were heart attacks for the Braves fans in attendance.
With Bradley up 55-52, the Cougars scored an open layup underneath the basket with seven seconds remaining to cut it to a one-point game. The Braves tried to inbound the ball behind their opponent’s hoop, but a scramble for the ball off a turnover from sophomore Connor Hickman created a suspenseful scene for both sides. Hickman would recover the ball and get fouled with 0.7 seconds left on the clock.
A 1-for-2 trip at the line gave the Braves a 56-54 lead, and after multiple timeouts the crowd stood on their feet for the final possession. A lofted throw from SIUE’s Shamar Wright landed in the hands of Ray’Sean Taylor, who miraculously flipped it over his shoulder and in the basket to force overtime.
Or so he thought.
After review, the game clock had expired before Taylor could get the shot off, and Bradley fans breathed a sigh of relief as the team collected their first one-possession victory this season.
“It started with me,” junior forward Darius Hannah said. “[Wright’s] a lefty, so I tried to shade his left hand. I did make him throw it pretty high; I [was] hoping we could get a tip and the clock [would] run out.”
Hannah’s length on the final play caused trouble, but the forward’s 12-point performance helped the Braves to complete a second half comeback after being down by 10 in the first period.
“Darius was by far the MVP of the game,” Wardle said. “He made big plays and good blocks when we needed it.”
Bradley was 4-0 all-time versus the Cougars heading into the game at First Community Arena in Edwardsville. It was the Braves’ first-ever trip to SIUE, and the Cougars had won their last six while Bradley was winners of three straight.
The unfamiliar territory caused the road team some frustration early. A 12-6 SIUE lead at the 14:26 mark in the first half gave the Cougars some confidence. Bradley’s first seven turnovers were unforced, as only one was by way of a steal.
Braves’ sophomore guard Zek Montgomery made his first appearance since Nov. 15 after dealing with an injured wrist. Shortly afterwards, Hickman splashed a three and Deen cashed a jumper to give BU a 20-18 lead at the 9:22 mark in the frame.
A 10-0 SIUE run put the game under their control and gave the home team a 33-25 halftime lead. The Cougars averaged six threes a game entering the contest and at the break, the group had already reached that threshold. 11 Bradley turnovers helped their opponent get out and run.
“[In the first half] it was just a lack of leadership,” Wardle said.
Out of the break, the Braves leaned into their bread-and-butter. Holding SIUE to zero points in the first five minutes, Bradley kicked off a 12-0 run to capture a 37-33 lead at the 15:10 mark. With more passing precision and using the Cougars’ fast pace against them, the Braves were able to hold the lead for nearly the rest of the way.
“It’s always tough on the road,” Deen added. “Shots may not fall, but defense travels. That’s what we did in the second half.”
Finishing with seven second-half turnovers and holding the Cougars to 33 percent shooting in the period, Bradley was able to put away its second consecutive road opponent.
Hannah, Hickman and junior Rienk Mast all finished with 12 points for the Braves. Mast added eight boards while senior Malevy Leons, the team’s leading scorer, finished with a meager two points.
“When I scheduled this series, it was out of a great friendship [that] Brian Barone and I have,” Wardle said. “I knew he would have this program on the up-and-up; what we played was a contending team in the Ohio Valley tonight in their gym.”
Barone and Wardle played together at Marquette during the 1998-2000 seasons. The two became good friends and eventually reunited at Green Bay where the Braves’ head coach brought Barone on as an assistant and eventually associate head coach.
“I just told him I loved him and [that] he’s a brother of mine,” Wardle said. “This is a lifelong memory; we’ll always remember that. He’s got many more wins to come.”
While it was an ugly process on the Braves’ end, Deen expressed that the quality of victory is all the same in the win column.
“Winning close games like that, no matter how you did it, [helps show] that you’re going to win those close games [in the future],” Deen said.
The Braves will have an extended break during finals week at Bradley to relish their latest victory before they take a trip to North Little Rock, Arkansas to play the No. 9 Arkansas Razorbacks in the first ever matchup between the two schools.