The Bradley Braves (9-10) wanted to break stereotypes on Wednesday night against the Drake Bulldogs (13-6).
The average age of Drake’s starters outnumbered Bradley’s by about two years. The Braves also gained notoriety for losing MVC games after holding double-digit leads. But head coach Brian Wardle and a host of Braves defied those expectations, playing smartly and consistently in an 83-71 victory at the Knapp Center in Des Moines, Iowa.
“We’ve had double-digit leads in every Valley game but one,” Wardle said. “It’s just playing smart, locking in and executing at key moments and making some big plays and we did that tonight.”
One of the game’s biggest moments came seven minutes into the second half. After the Bulldogs whittled the Braves’ lead down to 53-50, Bradley went on a 7-1 run with buckets from freshman guard Connor Hickman, graduate guard Mikey Howell and junior guard Ville Tahvanainen.
Hickman helped lead a balanced Braves scoring attack with 15 points, a career-high for the freshman from Bloomington, Indiana. After losing a 20-point lead against Illinois State and a 16-point lead against Loyola-Chicago in their last two Valley road contests, Hickman and company had a different response when Drake came chomping at their heels.
“This game, we didn’t get quiet,” Hickman said. “The past two games, they would go on a run and everyone would go into their own little world. Rienk [Mast] did a really good job of getting guys out of that tonight and focused on the team.”
Bradley’s above-average post play in the first half allowed them to hold a slim but consistent lead in the early going. The Braves’ tandem of senior center Ari Boya and the sophomore forward Mast frustrated Drake forward Darnell Brodie into a 1-7 start from the field. Boya set a season-high in points with eight; six of those coming in the first half and he added an exclamation point of an alley-oop from Howell in the second half.
“He’s been practicing with a chip on his shoulder all week,” Wardle said of the senior big man. “He built that trust back up this week and earned the opportunity. It was a good matchup with [Darnell] Brodie too and I was very proud of Ari.”
Graduate guard MIkey Howell pushed Bradley’s lead to 36-27 in the first half after a 3-pointer shortly before the first half ended, but the Bulldogs tightened the game up after a 4-point play from guard Tucker DeVries. Despite 10 first-half turnovers, Bradley took a 40-35 lead into the halftime break.
In the Braves’ most recent loss to Illinois State, the team lacked communication in the second half but they turned the tide on the issue this time around.
“Our [on-court] talk was good,” Wardle said. “We were focused, we didn’t make any mental mistakes to start the second half so I felt pretty good.”
The experience-laden Bulldogs team came within arm’s reach of the Braves early in the second half, but a 10-3 run in a span of just under 3 minutes had Bradley back on its feet. Shortly after, Drake went on a span of over three minutes without a field goal, earning its points solely from the free throw line, as they shot 37% for the game. The Braves shot 60% from the floor, including a sky-high 64% in the second half.
As Bradley chugged along, holding a steady lead, a quartet of Braves found double digits in the scoring column. Junior guard Terry Roberts led the way with 18 points, 8 rebounds and 5 steals. In addition, Mast had 17 on 8-9 shooting from the field, Hickman posted 15 and Tahvanainen broke out of a mini-slump with 11 after being held to single digits in the Braves’ last three games.
“[I felt like] we were locked in, they’re going to have to beat us tonight; we’re not going to beat ourselves,” Wardle said.
Freshman phenom Tucker DeVries, an AAU opponent of Bradley’s Hickman, led Drake with 17 points, but the Braves clamped down on the newcomer, holding him without a point in the last 17 minutes of the contest.
“I knew he could score like that and he’s a great player and I’m excited to play against him for years to come,” Hickman said about DeVries, the son of Drake head coach Darian DeVries.
With eight late points, Bulldogs senior D.J. Wilkins tightened the ballgame to the tune of 78-70 in Bradley’s favor with just over two minutes to play. But it was not the Braves’ night to be outplayed in crunch time.
“[We were] tired of losing,” Hickman said. “We were over not showing everybody what kind of team we really are. [We said] ‘Let’s show everyone we can close out a game.
Turnover prevention and converting on free throws played gigantic roles in ending Drake’s 13-game win streak at the Knapp Center. After BU turned the ball over 10 times in the first frame, they reduced that number to five in the second half. Bradley went 10 minutes straight without a turnover to start the second half. The Braves got to the foul line 16 times, converting 14 of those.
Both are things that will help a relatively young Bradley team mature and win in got-to-have-it games, especially after losing senior forward Ja’Shon Henry to another head injury suffered on Sunday against Illinois State.
“When you’re young and you go against an old team that has experience, in these games, you’ve got to play even smarter and I think we did that tonight,” Hickman said.
“We needed this road win and I thought we put together one of our better 40-minute performances,” Wardle said. “We can’t get comfortable and we’ve got to continue with a little chip on our shoulder [but] understand that if we play smart and we stay focused, no matter what our age is, we can beat anybody and we know that.”
The Braves look to even their season record when they return to Carver Arena on Saturday at 7 p.m. against Southern Illinois.