With senior guard Darrell Brown missing his first game since his freshman season, freshman Ville Tahvanainen was tabbed to make his first collegiate start versus I-74 rival Illinois State.
The Finnish guard delivered, and helped lead the Braves in scoring in a 75-63 triumph over the Redbirds on Wednesday night.
Senior guard Nate Kennell and Tahvanainen both posted a game-high 18 points to anchor a Bradley backcourt that was without its leading scorer and passer.
“It hurts when Darrell isn’t in the game … he really does it all for us,” Kennell said. “But, it really didn’t change anything. I just knew, even if he’s out or he’s in, I always got to stay aggressive, stay in attack mode.”
Kennell certainly stayed aggressive, scoring his 18 points on 7-18 shooting, including four 3-pointers, to go with six rebounds and three assists.
In addition to Brown, freshman walk-on Sean Houpt was also banged up and did not play. With Elijah Childs out for at least a few more weeks following hand surgery, the Braves were forced to resort to a seven-man rotation. Despite the short handedness, the mindset stayed the same for the entire team.
“The mentality to every game is the same, like play hard, play Bradley basketball and try to make winning plays as much as possible no matter how many guys we have on the team playing,” Tahvanainen said.
“We’ve got a lot of guys in polos right now, but I mean the comradery in the locker room, the talk is all about one thing, and that’s finding a way to win,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “That was fun to see and hear.”
The Braves recovered from a slow first half in which they held the lead for just over a minute. Bradley was down by as much as eight, but narrowed the halftime lead to just two.
Tahvanainen was a big part of the momentum swing, scoring 12 first-half points, including a 3-pointer that gave the Braves their first lead at the 6:50 mark.
Bradley kept that momentum out of the locker room, starting the second half with a 12-4 stretch which set them up to lead the final 17 and a half minutes of the game.
Sophomore forward Ja’Shon Henry scored all of his nine points in the second stanza, and junior guard Danya Kingsby scored eight of his 14 in the closing frame.
“It was kind of a tale of two halves for us,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “Everybody stepped up and made plays.”
One thing that was consistent throughout the entire game was the Braves’ dominance down low. Bradley torched the Redbirds for 42 points in the paint and allowed just 12.
On the contrary, Illinois State relied on the 3-ball and made 11 of a whopping 33 shots from beyond the arc. Bradley shot 15 threes and made six, all courtesy of Kennell and Tahvanainen.
Tahvanainen’s 18 points on 6-11 shooting marked a new career high, breaking his previous mark of 13.
“He can score the ball, he has his whole career, that’s what he does,” Wardle said. “I think if he got those type of minutes regularly, you’d probably see production like that regularly, to be quite honest. But, he’s played a real good role for us this year, and he was a star in his role tonight for sure.”
Bradley has won the last four meetings between the I-74 rivals, after Illinois State took eight consecutive matchups in a stretch from 2014 to 2018. Even to one of the newest members of the Bradley locker room, the rivalry is alive and well.
“It was a lot of fun,” Tahvanainen said. “You could just feel the intensity and toughness in the game … it was a good team win.”
Plenty of that intensity can be credited to the 7,303 in attendance, the largest home crowd of the season, as well as renowned Chicago Blackhawks singer Jim Cornelison, who charged up the crowd with his signature booming rendition of the national anthem.
With the win, Bradley improves to 5-2 in conference play, tying in second-place with Northern Iowa, who lost to Southern Illinois Wednesday night. Both teams are one game behind 6-1 Loyola.
The Braves now turn their focus to a Saturday matchup with Indiana State (10-8, 3-4) in Terre Haute. It is unclear whether or not Brown, who missed the game due to a lower-leg injury, will return for the game. There is no set timetable, and Wardle said the situation will be handled on a day-by-day basis.
It is clear, however, that Brown is confident in his teammates, as he posted a picture on his Instagram story before the with the caption “Rivalry Day … Gang handle that.” And handle it they did.