General wisdom would have you believe that how you finish is more important than how you start.
For Bradley men’s basketball (17-6, 9-3 MVC) this season, it’s mostly been about how they start.
Bradley has owned a double-digit halftime lead in seven of their eight conference wins heading into Saturday’s game against I-74 rival Illinois State (11-12, 5-7 MVC), with leading scorers Connor Hickman and Duke Deen averaging 18.7 and 13.8 points in those games, respectively.
But this time, it wasn’t Deen or Hickman doing the heavy lifting.
Malevy Leons scored 23, Darius Hannah scored 18 and Bradley once again used a double-digit halftime lead to trounce the Redbirds 73-60 in Normal. The craziest part? Much of their lead grew without Leons, who only played seven first-half minutes after picking up two early fouls.
“I’m nervous every game, and I was very nervous for this game, and our guys came out ready to play from the jump,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “I loved their first half, I thought we guarded well, protected the paint, moved the ball on offense, executed in the half court [and] built a nice lead.”
Much of the first-half production came from an underrated source. Freshman Demarion Burch scored eight points in the first on perfect 4-4 shooting, ultimately finishing with 10 on the day. In one of his most efficient games this season, Burch’s performance was a key ingredient to the Braves’ rivalry win, especially with one of the team’s stars in foul trouble.
“I thought Burch was really good,” Wardle said. “He came in and just made baskets, made plays at big times for us.”
Burch’s growth in such a short time has been needed for Bradley after guards Trey Pettigrew and Emarion Ellis left the program earlier this season. Saturday’s effort was a testament to the work Burch has put in to become a formidable option off the bench.
“Every morning we wake up probably like 7:00, me and DB [director of player development Darrell Brown] or coach MB [assistant coach Mike Bargen], we work on my shots or like slashing to the rim,” Burch said. “Things like that, just working on my craft and be[ing] better each and every day.”
Despite his limited first-half action, Leons finished with the most points he’s had since the season opener against UAB. His monumental effort helped him eclipse 1,000 points for his Bradley career, becoming the 53rd Brave in program history to reach the mark.
“I was counting in my head how many more I needed, and once I got it I was just smiling the whole way,” Leons said.
The win also moved Wardle into a tie with Dick Versace for fourth in MVC wins in program history, but on Saturday afternoon, the ninth-year coach was happiest for his Dutchman.
“He’s one of my best,” Wardle said. “His offensive game has gotten better each year. He’s always been a high motor, high effort kid. I think he’s gonna have a long pro career, I think he’s gonna get some tryouts and looks because he’s hitting threes and can really defend and he’s long and has good instincts.”
Illinois State told their crowd to stand until the first Bradley basket, but that didn’t last long as Hannah found Deen cutting to the basket after the tip for an easy two. The next possession, it was Hannah with the layup to give the Braves an early 4-0 lead.
The Redbirds brought it to a tie game at six all, but threes from the Braves helped them grow a small seven-point lead. That lead was extended thanks to Burch’s multiple drives and layups, part of a 14-2 run for Bradley.
In a case of déjà vu, the Braves rattled off a 14-1 run to end the first and head into the locker room with a 39-20 lead. Led by threes from Deen and Leons and a thundering dunk from Hannah, chants of “B-U” dominated CEFCU Arena as the half came to its end.
“Fast starts [are] always important on the road if you can get one,” Wardle said. “Usually starts with our defense [and] leads to our offense.”
It didn’t even take two minutes of the second half for Leons to get his 1,000th point, as he avoided a turnover and drove past an ISU defender for an open layup, joining fellow Dutchman Rienk Mast as the last two Braves to reach the 1,000-point threshold.
“I’m unbelievably proud to be part of that group,” Leons said. “It’s just something cool to have done in three years.”
If you ask Leons’ teammates and coaches, a milestone as big as this couldn’t have happened to a better person.
“What makes him special is just his personality,” Wardle said. “He’s a happy, go lucky guy, but he has a mean streak and a competitive streak to him when you get to know him on that court that helps him produce on this floor at a high level.”
Two nice post moves from Hannah led to two more slams following Leons’ milestone, part of a terrorizing day for the senior that saw him shoot a nearly perfect 8-9 from the field. His dunks as well as Burch and the rest of the guard’s layups helped lead a clinic down low for the Braves, as they outscored the Redbirds 40-28 in the paint and shot 12-15 on two-point field goals in the first half.
For Burch, the work he’s put in with Brown and the advice he’s been given from the former Bradley standout has helped him stay poised.
“Just stay patient and wait on my turn,” Burch said. “We got seniors here like [Leons], he just hit 1,000 points, my time [is] coming so that’s what I’ve been doing; waiting patiently.”
“He’s a super talented kid [and] he’s just scratching the surface. He’s just learning the game right now,” Wardle said. “We knew Burch was a physical talent, a gifted player offensively, but he was going to take some time to learn the game and understand spacing, positioning defensively, little details that he hasn’t been taught.”
ISU ended up winning the second half 40-34, with Malachi Poindexter scoring all of his team-high 16 points in the frame while shooting 4-5 from three. As a team, the Redbirds shot 70% from three and 56% from the field in the half despite coming into the game as the worst shooting team in the Valley.
“Defensively we could’ve locked in a little better in the second half,” Hannah said. “I didn’t think we guarded them well in the second half and we can defend better.”
This marks a third straight victory the Braves did not win the second half, meaning it’s something Wardle will have to prioritize going forward.
“I know perfection isn’t there in basketball, but like the players know I’m gonna keep coaching for that perfect game because we’re gonna need it down the stretch here when it comes to defending and rebounding for two halves,” Wardle said.
Still, the Braves never let the lead get below 13 in the half, and the last of the “B-U” chants rang out in Normal as the clock hit zero.
“It’s super cool to just know that our fans are loyal and they’re always there for us and I think it helps us a lot when they represent for us,” Leons said.
Now the Braves, winners of 11 of their last 12, will need to fend off the hordes to try and keep their top-three spot in the MVC standings heading into the final month of the regular season.
“Everybody brings their A-game against Bradley,” Hannah said.
The team heads to Evansville next to take on the Aces on Wednesday.