Bradley head coach Brian Wardle walked into the postgame press conference after Saturday’s game against Saint Joseph’s with a smile on his face. “By the end of the year, I’m going to have gray hair,” Wardle joked.
The Braves’ list of nail-biting losses early in the season was quite extensive: Colorado State, Brown, Duquesne and most recently, Toledo. The visiting Hawks put together a late run in hopes to add their name to the list but this time around, Bradley did enough to hang on in a 77-73 victory.
Following an 11-day break from games due to Bradley’s finals week, the Braves showed no signs of rust early and held a consistent single-digit lead for most of the contest. The final eight minutes, on the other hand, was quite the opposite.
After a 3-pointer from freshman guard Connor Hickman gave Bradley it’s biggest lead of the afternoon at 62-50 with just under nine minutes left, Saint Joseph’s slashed the lead in half with a 10-4 run.
Nonetheless, the Braves’ Achilles heels in previous late-game situations, namely turnovers and free throws, turned out to be their biggest strengths in pulling out the win.
“We took care of the ball today and we put it in from the foul line,” Wardle said. “Those are two areas that have cost us in a lot of close games like this.”
The Braves came into the contest ranked 342nd in free throw percentage, but made 20 foul shots on 25 attempts from the charity stripe, as opposed to the Hawks’ five for seven mark. Bradley also turned in a season low 10 turnovers.
“I’ve seen that free throw discrepancy the other way around too much this year so I’m happy to see it one time this year,” Wardle said. “That has shown to be a key analytic stat for our team this year.”
Preceded by a floater from Bradley junior forward Malevy Leons, Saint Joseph’s trailed 72-64 with 4:46 left to play in the second half. The Braves struggled to keep any closing drama away though and a few turnovers, missed shots and fouls later, the Hawks pulled to within one after a layup from Jordan Hall to make it 74-73.
With under a minute left, graduate guard Mikey Howell missed a three for the Braves, giving the ball back to the Hawks with the chance to take the lead. Needing a big play to potentially seal a win, Braves junior guard Terry Roberts picked Cameron Brown’s pocket with 13 ticks to go after the Hawks got three chances to score thanks to two offensive rebounds from Brown.
As the crowd roared in excitement, Roberts fed the ball to teammate Ja’Shon Henry, who was flagrantly fouled by Hall on a driving layup with nine seconds left in the game. Henry left the game after hitting his head hard on the Carver Arena hardwood and sophomore forward Jayson Kent sunk both free throws to give Wardle a sigh of relief, and the Braves their fifth win of the season.
Kent finished the contest with 11 points off the bench and a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line.
“Jayson Kent made huge free throws for us and that’s where you kinda go with your gut, the feel of the game of who’s made their free throws,” Wardle said. “Jayson’s a really good shooter and when he’s feeling it, he’s not going to miss.
Saint Joseph’s, who closely trailed Bradley for much of the first 20 minutes, discovered its rhythm near the end of the first half and nabbed a 34-29 lead, highlighted by seven points off the bench from Dahmir Bishop. After succumbing to game-changing runs previously during the season, a more matured Braves team surmounted the momentum of Saint Joseph’s at the end of each half.
“I think just in huddles, we kept our composure,” Henry said. “We talked on what we needed to execute and stayed calm through that. Everyday in practice, we put ourselves in situations like that so credit to our guys and our coaches for staying calm and composed in that situation.”
“We worked on cutting back our fouling, cutting back our turnovers so then when we’re in those close games, we’re ahead,” Hickman added. “The main thing coming in was focusing on taking care of the ball,” Hickman said. “No turnovers down the stretch like that is very important.”
Henry and Hickman were two of five Braves in double figures with 18 and 10 points, respectively. Leons added 14 and Roberts contributed 13 in the winning effort. Taylor Funk led the Hawks with 22.
Bradley controlled much of the contest, starting hot and drawing fouls early in each half. Saint Joseph’s biggest lead of 34-29 was erased by a 9-4 Bradley run to end the first half. Wardle’s team continued the quality all-around play with a 14-4 run in the first six minutes of the second half
Hawks guard Erik Reynolds II, who tallied 13 points, fouled out with just under eight minutes left to play and put the hosts in the double bonus for the remainder of the game.
“I thought we didn’t move the ball as fast and as quick as we do offensively but [Saint Joseph’s] does that to you,” Wardle said. “They don’t let you get drive-and-kick threes. We had to take what they gave us and that was a lot of points in the paint and attacking downhill and getting to the foul line.”
Bradley now has won four out of its last five ahead of their trip to the WestStar Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational in El Paso, TX on Dec. 21 and 22. Contrasting his team from the last in-season tournament, the Paradise Jam, until now, Wardle says that the differences are clearly apparent.
“I thought we did some really good things for about 30 out of 40 minutes,” Wardle said. “But we made plays down the stretch to win, which we haven’t done in four of our losses this year. It was good to see we got stops when we needed to; we made our free throws when we needed to.”
Bradley will look to reach the .500 mark when they play at UTEP on Dec. 21.