Since the beginning of the season, devastating news has seemed to reverberate from the men’s basketball program each week. As the group faced Merrimack Saturday, misfortune took the week off.
In the Braves’ 83-41 victory against the Warriors on Saturday evening, the early season struggles seemed to blissfully wander off as head coach Brian Wardle and the Braves welcomed back much-needed forward Rienk Mast.
The junior had missed the early part of the year with an MCL sprain to his right leg. In his season debut, Mast played 17 minutes, adding 12 points and six rebounds. However, the bigger splash came from Mast’s Netherlands counterpart: senior Malevy Leons.
The forward totaled a career-high 32 points and added 10 rebounds for his second-straight double-double of the season. Shooting 11-12 from the field and 5-5 from beyond the arc, the Warriors were left in a bind with how to maintain the lanky senior.
Bradley was coming off an 0-2 trip to Cancún, Mexico and were looking for a big game before an abbreviated start to conference play coming on Wednesday. The start Braves’ fans received was more than reassuring.
Sophomore Connor Hickman and seniors Ville Tahvanainen and Leons helped connect for four triples in the first 10 minutes, giving the Braves an 18-8 advantage. Then, a 13-2 run put the home team up 31-10 with four minutes to go. When both teams entered the locker room, it was Bradley with the 39-20 halftime lead.
The Braves controlled the tempo easily in the first half but played into their opponents’ hand. Bradley turned the ball over 13 times in the first period, hardly what Braves’ fans had seen at home up to that point.
Out of the half, junior guard Duke Deen pulled the trigger on a trey, answering a prior triple from the Warriors to begin the second half. Another three ball from Leons gave Bradley their largest lead at 56-30, but the onslaught was not about to slow down.
The Braves would open up a 27-7 run and close the game out 83-41, snapping their two-game losing skid.
While Bradley turned the ball over 22 times (a season high), they also shot 57 percent from the field and 50 percent from beyond the arc (both season highs). With the Braves controlling the boards with a 50-23 rebound advantage, the Warriors looked small on paper but were even smaller when Mast, Leons and junior Darius Hannah were on the floor together. The height disadvantage Merrimack experienced was a refreshing sight for the Braves who had been outrebounded by seven or more in three games this season.
Sitting at 4-3, Bradley will welcome reigning MVC conference champs Northern Iowa (2-3) to Carver Arena on Wednesday. It’s the first of two conference games for the Braves before they return to non-conference play.
Last year, the Panthers began Valley play in Peoria but narrowly lost 71-69. UNI will be without recently injured guard Nate Heise, so sophomore guard Bowen Born will lead the Panthers in search of a different result this year on Wednesday at 7 p.m.