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Madness in a minute: Leon’s clutch trip to the line continues Bradley’s dance in St. Louis.

Malevy Leons gets set on offense in Bradley’s MVC Tournament Semifinal win over Indiana State. Photo by Jonathan Michel.

Clank, clank, swish.

As a sea of red and blue at St. Louis’ Enterprise Center watched Malevy Leons’s first free throw hit the front of the rim, then the back of the rim and finally in, a roar erupted from Braves’ fans who just watched their senior forward knot the game at 70.


After Leons drained the second, giving Bradley the 71-70 lead with six seconds remaining, the Dutch native ran back on defense. Out of timeouts, the Indiana State Sycamores charged up the floor hoping to create further madness. As Indiana State’s forward Courvoisier McCauley hoisted a deep 3-ball over Leon’s outstretched arm, the Nike orange “rock” fell short and Braves’ fans exhaled. The second battle in Bradley’s 2023 MVC Tournament had been won, but the war remained.

“The last substitution when I put Malevy in the game might have been my best move of the game,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said minutes after the tense finish. “Malevy went and got that rebound and rebounding wins championships. I don’t care what anybody says.”

With 36 seconds left and the Braves up 69-67, McCauley had been the hero for the moment. His triple erupted the bench of the Sycamores, who had been behind the entire second half. After Wardle called a timeout down one, Bradley’s attempt to come away the victors had to pass through multiple heart-pausing scenarios.

Bradley forward Malevy Leons hypes up the crowd. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

On a baseline inbound, Bradley junior guard Duke Deen launched a trey for the win, but his attempt hit back iron. Advantage BU.

“We get another stop and the ball hits the back iron and just kicks straight up and becomes a jumping contest,” Indiana State head coach Josh Schertz said. “It was just bad luck.”

As Leons threw his ring in the hat for the so-called jumping contest, the lanky forward came down with the ball and was pushed from behind by the Sycamores’ Julian Larry. Leons went clutch at the line, and the Braves survived any upset bid Indiana State was hoping to pull off.

“You gotta love March, and you gotta love Arch Madness,” Wardle said. “I’ve sat back a couple of times and it’s just like ‘man, this is what it’s all about. This is what the training all year round comes down to.”

Double Dutch

Coming off his career-high 30-point performance in the quarterfinals on Friday, Bradley junior forward Rienk Mast sat just 21 points away from joining the 1,000 career points club. Indiana State has thrown all their chips into stopping the Netherlands native.

Before Mast could even smell the leather of the basketball, the Sycamores hustled to double team the 6-foot-9 star. This made the Braves look for their supporting cast, a strength all season, to carry them through.

Rienk Mast looks to the bench in Bradley’s MVC Tournament Semifinal win over Indiana State. Photo by Jonathan Michel.

“They did a tremendous job on Rienk by doubling him and pushing him off, but Rienk had five assists which was huge,” Wardle said. “Rienk doesn’t care about [scoring], he’s just so happy we won the game.”

Breaking up the Sycamore’s defense was Mast, who relied on his vision as opposed to his brute strength. When the junior was able to put two hands on the ball, his senior teammate Ja’Shon Henry was able to slam home exclamation points for Indiana State that showed stopping Mast was slaying only one of the Braves many dragons.

“We kind of work on post doubles all throughout practice to give the bigs a different look,” Henry said. “I just found that if I back cut and just kind of get in an open area, and with Rienk having tremendous feel and good vision, he’s able to find me down low.”

Chopping down the Sycamores gameplan to double Mast was vital to advance to championship Sunday.

It Takes Threes to Tango

When Leons won the tip to kick off the matchup between the first-seeded Braves and fifth-seeded Sycamores, fans were just getting seated for the heavyweight showdown. Blinking once, Indiana State had opened up a 12-5 lead just three minutes into the action and McCauley had his fingerprints all over it.

With the Sycamores cashing in four of their first five 3-point baskets, it looked like Bradley was going to get run out of the gym by Indiana State, which had scored over 90 points its last two games. That’s when Bradley’s senior leader stepped up.

“He had great talk in the timeouts, Ja’Shon did,” Wardle said. “That was the number one key to the game was we have to limit their threes. [After their early three’s] we settled in and started to guard a little better.”

Ja’Shon Henry rests for a moment in Bradley’s win over Drake. Photo by Jenna Zeise

Taking their largest lead of the game at the 13:49 mark of the first half, the Sycamores had built on their three-point shooting up 20-12 on the regular season champs.

Mast began to find Henry underneath the rim and that’s when the Braves began dunking Indiana State’s hopes into oblivion. Spurting out on a 5-0 run, Bradley had reawoken the sea of red before the second media timeout at the 11:13 mark.

10 minutes had been played and Bradley had yet to turn the ball over. Converting on an Indiana State turnover, sophomore Connor Hickman drained a floater for the 23-22 lead and sent the Braves bench skyward with their first lead since it was 2-0 to start the game.

Both teams continued to counter punch each other’s attacks and it created an edge-of-your-seat atmosphere for the remainder of the first half. After grabbing another rebound, Henry went back up and slammed another dunk home for Bradley’s largest lead: a 35-31 four point advantage with under two to play.

Cooper Neese, who scored 33 in the Sycamores’ quarterfinal matchup, drained a triple before the horn sounded and the teams entered the locker room separated by a single point.

One Half to Crown a Winner

Connor Hickman dribbles against Indiana State’s Julian Larry in the Braves MVC Tournament win over Indiana State. Photo by Jonathan Michel.

Running wild out of the locker room, Bradley had caused a bit of frustration inside the Sycamores huddle after taking a 55-44 lead – their largest of the game. That lead was attributed to Hickman, Henry and Braves junior forward Darius Hannah. With Hannah and Henry pile-driving dunks home and Hickman playing the point with precision, the Braves were creating problems up and down for their opponents.

“There was a stretch there in the middle of the second half where offensively and defensively we just went through a really poor stretch,” Schertz said. “[Against] championship teams, in games where the competition level is high, you can’t have those lapses. It’s a really high line.”

Indiana State whittled down the deficit in the following minutes and re-lit the spark from the first four minutes of the game. Changing their defense was a big reason as to why.

“The double wasn’t really working like we thought it was because he’s an incredible passer out of the post,” a teary-eyed Cameron Henry said. “It’s my last year. I’ll do anything to help my team and I thought I’d guard him one-on-one.”

Henry put the Sycamores in great position by his defense on Mast, but when it mattered most, free throws – a Bradley stat that has perplexed the program – was what Bradley rose above to move on to Sunday.

“One More”

It’s been the calling card for the Braves ever since the regular season title was determined in Peoria against Drake, but the team’s mantra “One More” is all that’s left for Bradley to land a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

With Drake topping Southern Illinois 65-52, the MVC’s oldest rivalry writes its next chapter in St. Louis Sunday afternoon. The Bulldogs blew past the Braves in Des Moines while the Braves were efficient in their win for the Valley title just one week ago.

A neutral site between the two best teams, two highest seeds and top two preseason teams will be on the docket Sunday. Seeking the program’s fifth tournament title, the thoughts before the showdown are simple.

“There’s no time to be tired now,” Henry said. “Everyone’s gonna be fired up to play tomorrow.”

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