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One more time: Bradley’s no mercy offense downs Salukis on senior night

Darius Hannah slam dunk against Illinois State, Photo by Rodrigo Perez

As Carver Arena filled up for the last time this season, four Braves were honored during senior night. 

Malevy Leons, Darius Hannah, Connor Linke and Goanar Biliew all started together for the first time, with Biliew receiving his first career start. 

“It was pretty emotional, at first I honestly almost started tearing up walking out there but I’m like ‘I can’t show the fans that side, I got to hold it in,’” Hannah said. 

Against a Southern Illinois (19-11, 11-8 MVC) team looking to stay in the top four of the MVC and skip the notorious Thursday game of Arch Madness, the Braves (21-9, 13-6 MVC) had their own motivations, wanting to make their senior night one to remember. 

“Our seniors, how they started the game, that was the best part of the night,” Braves head coach Brian Wardle said. “Watching G [Goanar Biliew] Link [Connor Linke] Mal [Malevy Leons] and Darius [Hannah] play together, because I don’t think I’ve ever put them out on the court together.”

After Bradley achieved a program record 21-point comeback against the Salukis earlier this season, Southern Illinois came out of the gate aggressive.

“We knew what they were playing for here, and obviously every team that comes in here gives us their best effort and we knew that SIU was, we call it a weight room game, and we got to be the stronger team and that was the message before,” Hannah said. 

The Braves were left hungry offensively after a rock fight against Illinois State last weekend, feeding off of the Salukis defensive struggles. Defeating Southern Illinois 86-67, Hannah served as the main orchestrator, dealing 22 points of damage, while Leons and junior Connor Hickman made their mark with 16 and 17 points, respectively. 

Runs and defense

A.J. Ferguson got the Salukis started, as his trey sat Carver Arena back in their seats after 15 seconds. The Braves’ senior starting five responded with a 13-0 run, with a pair of Connor Hickman free throws spilling beyond the media timeout. 

In the early stages of the first half, Southern Illinois head coach Bryan Mullins and his bench  brought the passion from the sidelines, with their voices cutting through Carver. 

“I mean they could have been jacked up but we didn’t forget that they embarrassed us at their place in the first half,” Deen said. 

After the timeout, the Braves cooled down a bit as the Salukis found themselves within two points with 12:54 left in the first half. Going on a 8-0 run built from a Xavier Johnson jumper and two straight triples from Troy D’Amico and Trent Brown, the Salukis found their rhythm. 

Salukis hang on

The good for Southern Illinois during the first half was their movement on offense, passing the ball and finding Salukis with open looks early on. The problem for Southern Illinois was a mixture of poor shooting and good defense from the Braves. 

Physical pieces like Linke and Biliew on the court early on allowed Bradley to deploy Hannah into a point guard role that the forward had wanted to play for a while.

After a couple of trips to the line for multiple Braves, Leons capped off a 9-2 run over the last five minutes to give the Braves a 37-25 lead with under a minute left in the first half. Despite taking a 10-point advantage into the locker room, the Braves struggled to find much production from beyond the arc. 

Southern Illinois squeezed out any possibility of the Braves doing damage from range, holding the Braves to 1-8 shooting or 12 percent in the first half. Ranked 12th nationally, the Salukis have been holding their opponents to 29 percent from the three-point line this season. 

That mark, along with a couple of others, improved for the Braves in the second half. 

No mercy offense

Like a chain reaction, a Leons dunk transformed into an 8-0 run to start the second period for Bradley. 

Despite his 17-point performance, Hickman’s real activity was in other categories as he led in rebounds (8), assists (5) and steals (5). In a little under a minute, Hickman found redshirt junior Christian Davis and freshman Almar Atlason for two successful 3-pointers. 

Leading 45-29 with 18:18 on the clock, Southern Illinois took an early timeout and the rest of the frame was much tighter, with both teams trading shots over the next eight minutes. 

Despite their struggles from beyond the arc in the first half, Bradley cracked the Salukis defensive puzzle, improving their mark to 60 percent in the second half. 

“I think our guys got down hill a little more, we were reading some slips better, just overall the ball was popping,” Wardle said. “They’re a hard team to score on, they’re a hard team to get threes on.” 

That improvement was enough for the Braves to pick up their biggest run of the game, going on a 15-0 run that lasted over three minutes. 

“I know that we wanted to send a message tonight, that we’re still here,” Deen said. 

Not just sending a message offensively, but on defense Leons denied multiple Salukis with six blocks throughout the contest. To the enjoyment of Bradley fans, he swatted away multiple Southern Illinois shots, pushing away any hope for a comeback. 

As the bench pieces flooded onto the court one last time, Bradley ended the night locked in as the third seed with another Friday game to start Arch Madness secured. 

The Braves make one more stop before heading to St. Louis, another important test against a Drake team coming off a close call in Chicago. After the Bulldogs defeated the Braves earlier in the season, this final regular season game will be a good chance for Bradley to measure their growth before their biggest test of the season.

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