Bradley won the battle, but lost the war.
Seven days after defeating Drake for the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title, the Braves could not find the magic that they had during their last 12 wins, losing 77-51 to the Bulldogs in the MVC Tournament Championship in St. Louis on Sunday.
The loss was the largest by any team in an Arch Madness title game since 2008, where, coincidentally, Drake beat Illinois State by 30.
“They were the hunters; they hunted us,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We’ve been hunting people for a while. Not today though. They came after us pretty hard and obviously had a little chip on their shoulder from last week and they really played great.”
The Braves’ hopes for a bid to March Madness, one that they could get back after having it stolen from them due to COVID in 2020, were severely hurt from the start in the title bout. Drake, boasting a starting five with an average age higher than a few current NBA teams, had lost MVC title games in 2021 and 2022. Their experience, composure and phenomenal shooting ensured that wouldn’t happen again.
“I got seven guys that were in eighth grade when a lot of their guys started college basketball,” Wardle said. “We looked like that today. They looked like experienced veterans execution-wise.”
Trouble from the start
After both teams combined to start 1-for-10 from the field, the Bulldogs went on a 12-0 run after the first media timeout of the game that was capped off by triples from Sardaar Calhoun and D.J. Wilkins. The early deficit was similar to what the Braves faced against Indiana State on Saturday, but the response was not there this time.
The frazzled Braves only made one of their first nine shots from the field until junior point guard Duke Deen made a 3-pointer to make it 16-7 at the 11:46 mark of the first half. However, the Bulldogs made four-straight shots to push their lead to 23-7 and panic had fully set in on Bradley’s side.
“Defensively, we broke down too much, offensively, we started rushing and taking some bad shots,” Wardle said.
“This group of guys here were incredibly determined to get to this spot,” Drake head coach Darian DeVries said. “Not today, but a year ago. That’s why they came back and for them to be rewarded is pretty special.”
The Braves took a 41-21 deficit and a 26 percent shooting mark into halftime. Sophomore guard Connor Hickman, who scored 19 against the Bulldogs a week ago, was scoreless in the first half.
Down low, junior forward Rienk Mast and senior forward Malevy Leons went 1-for-8 combined from the field in the opening frame. Around the arc, Bradley didn’t fare much better and finished by shooting 26 percent from deep.
“We could just never find our confidence on shooting threes this whole weekend,” Wardle said. “It was a concern of mine going into the games because we needed to find our shooting touch so we can take some pressure off the inside.”
Depth also took a hit for the Braves as senior guard Ville Tahvanainen missed the game after sustaining concussion-like symptoms in Bradley’s 71-70 semifinal win over Indiana State.
Mast was determined to have a big game after being double-teamed all of Saturday, but only finished with six points. Senior forward Ja’Shon Henry played well in his last game at Arch Madness, leading the Braves with 10 points and being named to the all-tournament team, but Bradley’s biggest strength offensively was taken away by post defense led by Bulldogs’ big forward Darnell Brodie.
“Yeah, Brodie played phenomenal this week,” Bulldogs guard and Arch Madness MVP Tucker DeVries said. “With the ball screen defense, he had a tough assignment this week and he owned up to it and did a great job today.”
“They looked like they’d been in this game before and they’ve been in this moment,” Wardle said. “We only had one player on our roster going into the game that had been in this game and that’s Ja’Shon Henry and he looked the most comfortable on our team out there.”
Comeback masters run out of magic
Bradley’s big deficit was nothing new for the program in the MVC Tournament Championship. They trailed for a bit both in 2019 against Northern Iowa and 2020 against Valparaiso before utterly dominating each second half to clinch an automatic bid to March Madness. Although over approximately 4,500 Braves’ fans in attendance were seated and quiet, they were as hopeful as a fanbase can be with their team down 20.
That hope didn’t last long, thanks to a lights-out shooting performance from DeVries and his teammates.
Drake began the second half by making four out of their first six shots. The physical Bulldogs also got to the line and more wind was taken out of the Braves’ sails as sophomore guard Zek Montgomery picked up his fourth foul with 18:16 left in the game.
At that point, it seemed like Montgomery, Leons, Mast and Hickman had all been taken out of the game. Not often do teams win when four of their starters are neutralized.
DeVries, who MVC Defensive Player of the Year Malevy Leons held to 3-for-11 shooting a week ago, added 13 down the stretch to keep the chasing Braves far away. As Bradley made baskets at an increased rate in the second half, they could hardly make up any of the deficit and DeVries dealt what was possibly the final blow with a stepback three to put the Bulldogs up 64-40 with 9:37 left.
“Bradley’s a tremendous team and, you know, we just played them a week ago, and we just knew it was going to be a dogfight for 40 minutes,” Sturtz said.
DeVries finished with a game-high 22 points, while Brodie and Sturtz both added 12. The Bulldogs made eight of their 14 3-pointers, shot over 50 percent from the floor and even made the most unlikely jump shots.
“This may be as complete a game as we’ve had on both ends of the floor,” Darian DeVries said.
“In that moment, responding and resetting quicker and getting back to some grit and grind that we’ve had throughout the year,” Wardle said about what he learned from the game. “Maybe it was fatigue, I don’t know but we just didn’t have it today. I think they tried. We all tried.”
Braves’ balloon popped
The loss was a painful conclusion to Bradley’s 12-game win streak. One more win and Bradley would have been considered one of the hottest teams in the country with a ticket to March Madness in hand.
With a 25-9 record in a mid-major conference, an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament is highly unlikely, but could’ve been a possibility if Mast, Henry and Montgomery weren’t hurt in the non-conference portion of the season.
Now, they’re left searching to pick up the pieces and make a run in the NIT, which they clinched a bid to by winning the MVC regular season championship. Drake bringing their best game left Mast and Hickman in an unfamiliar state of emotions.
“Obviously, [you] expect more from yourself and I personally didn’t have it today, and that really stinks right now,” Mast said.
“It’s really frustrating to not show up in a game like this,” Hickman added. “I think it’s not fair to your teammates or to the fans who showed up to see you play. Rienk and I didn’t have it today either and it’s just really frustrating to know that.”
Henry is the only Brave on this year’s squad who was around for their near-upset of No. 2-seeded Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2019. While the sting of not making another trip to the Big Dance will hurt for a while, Bradley still has something to play for.
“I want them to feel that NCAA tournament game,” Wardle said. “That hurts, but I told them tears are fine. We’re gonna let this hurt for a couple of days now and we gotta get back together on Wednesday. Start practicing because we’re gonna be in the NIT.”
Just like the Bulldogs used their 73-61 loss in Peoria to fuel an inferno of revenge, the Braves will surely as well as all but Henry make their first venture into a postseason tournament.
“Yeah, after such a season with a lot of positive things, you want to end on a high note and have that last positive memory with this group,” Mast said. “Because you never know who’s back next year so I just want to finish it off strong with a great group of guys.”
After losing to a Loyola squad full of experience and a senior-laden Drake team in back-to-back years in St. Louis, the Braves, with a handful of sophomores, juniors and seniors returning, are primed to turn into the hunters come the first Sunday in March.
“We’ll be back in this game if we keep this group together,” Wardle said. “We’ll be back and we’ll be better for it. I know that for a fact.”
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