Bradley had the game against Missouri State in their hands, quite literally, on Wednesday night.
Such a statement may have been regarded as implausible when the Braves (7-8 overall, 1-2 MVC) trailed by 18 points early in the second half. But Bears guard Isiaih Mosley took it away as time expired.
Down 69-68 after two successful free throws from Bradley junior guard Jayson Kent, Missouri State guard Lu’Cye Patterson’s contested floater with five seconds left in the game hit off the backboard and rim. For a split second, the rebound, and a Braves win, seemed to be in the hands of junior forward Malevy Leons.
That is, until the rebound bounced off Leon’s fingertips and was recovered by Mosley, who chucked up a fadeaway three pointer over junior guard Ville Tahvanainen that sunk as time expired. The improbable shot provoked a dogpile of Missouri State players as Bradley trudged off the court with hands over their heads, stunned by the numbers “71-69” on the scoreboard.
“Oh yeah, I knew [the game-winning shot] was going to go,” Mosley said. “Nothing was drawn up, we were just playing it out to the last minute.”
For the first 17 minutes of the contest, Missouri State (11-5 overall, 2-1 MVC) hardly would’ve imagined they would need a buzzer-beater to walk out of Peoria with a win. The Bears frustrated Bradley in the early going, forcing 10 first-half turnovers and making the Braves work tremendously hard for each basket.
Staying away from all-MVC forward Gaige Prim in the paint, the Braves used a handful of threes to stick around for a short period in the first half but a 14-4 Bears run that spanned nearly seven minutes put Missouri State ahead 38-23 with under three minutes to go before the intermission.
However, a 10-2 Bradley run in the waning minutes of the first half, which featured a pair of 3-pointers from Tahvanainen and an emphatic dunk from Kent, kept the Braves and the crowd alive heading into halftime.
“Going into halftime, that was big for us because we started out slow,” Kent said. “We wanted to defend our home court and show the Peoria fans what they came to see and we weren’t not going to battle; we were gonna battle with a chance to get that lead in the second half.”
“Our toughness came back to us in those last three minutes,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We didn’t give our crowd much to cheer about in the first 17 minutes of that game. As soon as we started punching back and adjusted to the physicality of the game, I thought we played much better.”
Missouri State roared back with a 3-minute run of its own to start the second half; outscoring Bradley 12-2 largely in part to seven points from Patterson during that stretch. The Bears sophomore guard started 7-8 from the field and finished with a career-high 20 points to lead all scorers.
“He backed us down into the paint, spun off us, up-and-undered us,” Wardle said. “We didn’t respond to him well in the first half, the second half we were a little bit better. But it’s unfortunate because we’ve had a lot of guys have career nights against us in tight tough losses.”
Patterson, one of the more overlooked starters on a talent-laden Bears team, hit a 3-pointer with 17:26 left in the second to stretch the lead to 53-35. The shot felt like a knife through the heart to the Braves fans in attendance but Wardle and his crew had more to say.
Leons responded with a deep ball on the next Braves possession and Kent followed up with another triple, prompting a timeout from Missouri State head coach Dana Ford. Bradley smelled blood in the water.
“We weren’t trying to get rattled,” Kent said. “We didn’t want to play their style of basketball. We just knew it was a long game and we just kept chipping away and chipping away.”
“They were warriors tonight because they showed their character,” Wardle said about Leons and Kent.
After a three from Ja’Monta Black out of the timeout, the Bears suddenly lost all control of their lead, going 0-7 from the field with six turnovers and nine fouls in a span of six and half minutes. Meanwhile, the Braves got 3-pointers from Tahvanainen and Mast to continue their scoring run into the media timeout under 12 minutes.
The Braves continued to inch closer and eventually, their comeback reached a pinnacle after Leons sunk a triple to tie the game at 63. The Dutch junior then deftly laid in a nifty, athletic layup to give the hosts a 65-63 lead. Leons finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, just behind Kent’s 18 points and seven boards, both career highs.
“Their toughness, their heart, their competitiveness got us back in the game and had us in position to win the game,” Wardle said about Tahvanainen, Leons, Kent and Mast. “I’m very proud of those four.”
Bradley came within centimeters of stretching their lead to 68-63 with just over two minutes left when Tahvanainen shot a corner three that bounced off the iron, sat on top of the backboard for three seconds and then fell in. After a lengthy review, the referees waved off the basket.
With the Braves leading by two instead of five, the advantage changed hands five times in the last four minutes. Though no one came up bigger for Bradley than Kent, who converted on an offensive putback and pair of free throws to put them ahead by a point with 24 ticks remaining before Mosley’s dagger.
The outcome of the game was close enough to be decided by a coin flip but the Bears countered the Braves’ punches with a turnaround jumper from Mosley and a deep ball from his high school teammate Black in the last two minutes. Each Bears point helped prevent Bradley from tying their record for the largest comeback victory in school history. The only other time that the Braves came back to win after facing an 18 point deficit was in the 2019 MVC Championship game against Northern Iowa.
“We were feeling good,” Mosley said. “We kept going into the huddle telling each other that we’ve been in this position multiple times and all we needed to do was stay calm, stay composed and knew that everything was going to come together at the end.”
The loss gives Bradley their second in a row since the calendar turned to 2022. Five of the team’s eight defeats this season have come by a combined 18 points.
“I think this our fifth or sixth loss this year kind of like this, including Indiana State in the last game where we couldn’t close the game out,” Wardle said.
“It was a roller coaster ride,” Leons said. “They shot a tough stepback three in our face. It just sucks…just disappointed.”
Despite the heartbreaking outcome, Wardle remains optimistic of his team’s chances ahead of both Saturday’s game at Loyola Chicago and a possible revenge game against Missouri State later this year.
“I know we can beat anyone,” Wardle said. “I think everybody knows that, I think everyone’s seen it. I mean every coach that talks to me about our team, I think, is nervous to play us but we’ve still got to put it together and we didn’t tonight. I’m hoping next time we see them, they see a full 40 minutes of Bradley.”
Bradley’s contest with Loyola will tip off at 3 p.m. on Saturday at Gentile Arena.