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Rivalry renewed: Bradley beats Loyola-Chicago in NIT first round

Duke Deen celebrates the waning moments of a win over Loyola Chicago in the first round of the NIT on March 20, 2024. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Darius Hannah remembers the last time he faced Loyola-Chicago.

The Braves’ senior forward was just a sophomore at the time, but he still remembers the Ramblers knocking Bradley men’s basketball out of the Arch Madness quarterfinals to end their season.

On Wednesday night, Hannah and the Braves returned the favor, with cheers from the Carver Arena crowd helping them to a win over their former MVC rival.

“I wanted to do it for the fans. I wanted to do it for Peoria because that’s what it’s about,” Hannah said. “We got great fans and they would’ve loved to see us win, especially beating Loyola. And that’s what we did.”

In their first matchup against Loyola in two years, Bradley used a strong first half to beat the Ramblers 74-62 and knock them out of the first round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). The Braves’ “big four” all scored in double figures, led by senior guard Duke Deen’s 18 and Hannah’s 17.

Bradley players Malevy Leons, Darius Hannah and Connor Hickman congratulate each other during their win over Loyola Chicago in the first round of the NIT on March 20, 2024. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Bradley turned in one of their best first halves of the season, holding Loyola to just 19 points on 23% shooting and building a 17-point lead heading into the locker room. It’s the lowest number of points scored against the Braves in a first half this season, and it gave them the cushion they needed to take down the A-10 regular season champions.

“You could feel that leading up to the game this is a rivalry, kinda like how [Illinois State]-Bradley is always a rivalry,” graduate forward Malevy Leons said. “You can feel the history behind it.”

Leons notched a double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds while swatting five blocks, giving him another 50 steal-50 block season. A year after becoming the first player in MVC history to pull off a 50-50, Leons did it again, and made it look easy in the process.

“It’s pretty cool,” Leons said. “Trying to do my best on defense and trying to impact the game in as many ways as possible.”

Loyola mounted a comeback in the second half, bringing the deficit to as little as two after trailing by as much as 21. Rambler guard Braden Norris scored 17, all in the second frame, using his experience playing the Braves to give them trouble down the stretch. Norris is one of four Ramblers left over from that quarterfinal win.

As one of five players remaining on Bradley’s side, Hannah was happy to get his revenge, and Loyola head coach Drew Valentine was impressed after seeing the Braves’ veterans play again.

“I even said something to Hannah in the [handshake] line like ‘man, you’ve really, really improved,’” Valentine said. “Just impressed with him and Hickman in particular how those guys have developed.”

“It was probably bigger in [the MVC Tournament] ‘cuz you get a chance to go to March Madness, but it felt pretty good in the NIT to send them home, especially here at Carver,” Hannah said.

Duke Deen guards Loyola’s Braden Norris during their first-round NIT game on March 20, 2024. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Bradley opened the game on a 10-0 run behind a spot-up three from junior Christian Davis and a nice spin move from Leons to get past Norris for an easy layup. Hannah contributed to the Braves’ first five points on the opening run, also grabbing four rebounds and a steal.

The Braves continued the outburst after a Loyola timeout, scoring layups on dump-offs to Hannah and senior forward Connor Linke and finding freshman guard Demarion Burch cutting to the basket. A Leons takeaway and coast-to-coast drive gave Bradley a 20-5 lead less than nine minutes into the action.

“At first we thought they were gonna double but they started off playing just straight up and we were kind of happy to see that,” Leons said. “It was good to take advantage of.”

The Ramblers finally scored their 10th point 12 minutes in, then a one-handed, off-balance jumper from Deen as the shot clock expired took the wind out of the visitors’ sails and allowed the Braves to coast to a 36-19 halftime lead.

“We executed in the first half,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “Effort was good, ball pressure was good. I thought our post double was very efficient, smart, and we did a good job.”

A lot of the Braves’ first-half success stemmed from doubling Loyola forward Dame Adelekun in the post, holding the 6-foot-8, 230-pound big man to just three points in the period despite his size advantage over Bradley’s starters. That was part of a solid defensive effort overall from the Braves, one that caused Loyola to miss their first nine 3-point attempts.

“Put him in pressure, make him make decisions,” Hannah said about doubling Adelekun. “Get the ball out his hands and make him make quick decisions, and doubling puts him in that position.”

“It makes us more aggressive, the way we play defense,” Leons added. “Not sitting back but be the aggressor and go after them.”

The Ramblers battled back coming out of the locker room, as Norris was left open for a three on the half’s first possession to get him on the board for scoring. Loyola crashed the offensive glass hard, out-rebounding the Braves 8-4 in both halves to score 19 second-chance points.

“We started imposing our will, we started limiting them to one shot,” Valentine said. “We started imposing our will on the offensive glass and then we were able to get out in transition [and] get some easy ones.”

Their ability on the glass helped Loyola go on a 9-0 run to cut the lead to 12. Another Norris three with 12:17 to go following a Hannah turnover made it 49-38, and Wardle was forced to call a timeout.

“Our turnovers hurt us obviously in the second half, and then we just had too many breakdowns and Norris got going,” Wardle said. “I respect Norris a lot. I think that kid’s a winner, I did back in the day and now he’s even older and he just knows how to play, he knows how to win and you can tell he laid it all out on the floor in that second half.”

The Ramblers started working in the post as Bradley failed to send their double team on multiple occasions, causing the Loyola big men to score on layups and go on a 16-5 run. Another Bradley turnover, one of eight in the half, led to a fastbreak layup from Des Watson and cut the Braves lead to two.

“We knew they were going to come back and make a push,” Wardle said. “They’re a very good team, they had a heck of a year, a great January, February, March. We knew they were gonna come make a push but we had to weather that storm a little bit.”

About to lose their lead for the first time all game, Bradley had to put together a good offensive possession. They whipped the ball around until it found Deen, and the 5-foot-8 guard hit one of his season’s many threes to push the lead back out to five and start a 7-0 run that iced the game.

“We didn’t make the plays once [the lead] got to [two],” Valentine said. “We missed shots, we fouled, we missed layups, we missed free throws and it was unfortunate but give Bradley credit because it got dicey, it got quiet and they found a way to make the plays.”

Faced with a Loyola run that could’ve ended his season like it did when he was a sophomore, Hannah didn’t back down. He and Deen put the exclamation point on the win, first with Hannah’s acrobatic reverse layup from under the basket, then with Deen’s lob from halfcourt to his fellow senior for a crowd-igniting dunk.

“Just stay calm, stay poised, rely on our defense and stay together. That’s all it is.” Hannah said. “It’s basketball, it’s a game of runs and they obviously went on a run.”

And with chants of “M-V-C” serenading Carver Arena, the clock struck zero and the Braves got the last laugh over their longtime rival, punching their ticket to the next round.

“It felt good,” Hannah said. “I never know when we’ll see Loyola again and obviously we got them in the NIT and it was a chance to get our revenge.”

“We’re older and bigger now,” Leons added.

Next, the Braves will head to Cincinnati to take on the Bearcats on Saturday, who used a game-winning three in overtime to beat San Francisco. But for now, they’ll take a day off and enjoy the experience of a postseason win at home.

“It wasn’t about Loyola. It wasn’t,” Wardle said. “As much as our fans and media like to make it, it was about our city and playing for our city. Whoever was in this building with us, we were gonna play the same way and hopefully lay it on the line.”

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