Despite the mid-day announcement that junior forward Ja’Shon Henry could return from suspension to Bradley’s lineup, the Braves couldn’t recover from a slow start and lost to rival Illinois State 88-71 on Thursday night at Carver Arena.
The loss secures the series sweep by the Redbirds over Bradley, after ISU took the Jan. 20 matchup at Redbird Arena in grand fashion, 71-56.
“Just a very poor performance defensively, by us, especially in the second half,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “They were tougher, [a] higher effort team in the second half. That’s when you get beat.”
It’s the third straight loss for Bradley, all coming by 15 or more points. The suspension of seniors Elijah Childs, Danya Kingsby and junior Terry Nolan Jr. due to a violation of team standards and police investigation has left the Braves shorthanded in all three losses.
Henry was cleared from any accusations and hence allowed to play. Henry provided a much-needed boost to the offense, leading the Braves with 15 points on 6-11 shooting from the floor.
“Right before tipoff, I was standing out there, and it got emotional for me,” Henry said. “Being on the court is where I wanted to be.”
The Redbirds ripped off a 13-2 run in the first four and a half minutes of the game to set the tone for a wire-to-wire victory. The Braves responded with a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to 10-13 and eventually kept ISU’s deficit at just three points, 35-32, at the half.
“We were confident coming in,” junior guard Kevin McAdoo said. “They played well, hit some shots early, got on a run … we couldn’t ever get in the flow of the game.”
In the second frame, the floodgates opened. The Redbirds rained in a barrage of shots, knocking down 70 percent of their attempts in the half.
However, the stanza started promising for the home team as the Braves were able to pull even at 49 apiece with 13:46 remaining in the game on a free throw by McAdoo. It was the game’s first tie, but it would also be the last.
After the free throw, ISU opened up a 9-0 run that eventually burgeoned to a 21-7 stretch that gave the ‘Birds a 70-56 advantage, which eventually led to the 17-point loss.
“For about 30 minutes of this game, our defense was not very good,” Wardle said. “We were searching for a lineup that worked good together, we were searching for consistency and we just couldn’t find it … I don’t think anyone on the team was good in the second half.”
With the Braves record resting at 11-14 and 5-11 in the Missouri Valley Conference, the team will take 10 days off before playing second-place Drake on Feb. 26 and 27 in Peoria.
With the long layover, Wardle said he’s going to be focusing on the basics with the shorthanded roster.
“It’s going to be a lot of competing, defending and rebounding for about a week straight,” Wardle said. “Just to see who really understands what our identity used to be, we haven’t had it this year much, especially when Ari [Boya] went out … We’ve got a lot to clean up and a lot to work on.”
Bradley will need to find its identity quickly, as the team currently sits in 7th place in the MVC, in danger of playing in the Arch Madness play-in round. No team to play on Thursday has ever gone on to win the MVC tournament title.
The Braves haven’t played in the play-in round since the 2016-17 season, when the team finished 7-11 in conference play.
For now, though, Wardle isn’t focusing on the final score. Instead, he’s keying in on something not in the box score.
“I just want to see us compete and be tough, for 40 minutes,” Wardle said. “I don’t even care about the result. I just want to see great effort, competitive spirit and some toughness as we go down the stretch here.”