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Rivalry returns as Redbirds snatch Braves’ first MVC win in closing minutes

Caroline Waite reads the defense vs South Dakota. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

You’d think that losing to your rival would be cause for a ruined night, but Bradley women’s basketball head coach Kate Popovec-Goss chose to see things from a different point of view after her team’s 60-50 loss to Illinois State Thursday night.

“I’m just tremendously proud of our kids,” Popovec-Goss said. “That’s a team contending for the conference title and our kids played four quarters of tremendous basketball.”

Being competitive in all four periods has been a struggle for the Braves (3-13, 0-5) this season, but you’d never know by watching the group that pushed the defending MVC champions to their limits.

For fans that made their way to Renaissance Coliseum, the energy that coursed through the arena was contagious in the final frame.

The Braves entered halftime down 32-25 after they struggled to shoot the ball in the first two quarters. Defensive intensity helped Bradley force turnovers which gave them much easier shots in transition.

“We take pride in [forcing turnovers],” Braves’ sophomore guard Alex Rouse said. “I felt like we were getting the shots we were supposed to get because of the defensive end.”

Bradley, who had bested their opponent in just one third frame all year, stymied the Redbirds (10-5, 4-1) out of the locker room by winning the third quarter, a goal echoed through the team during the break.

“[The third quarter] has been an emphasis every day and [in] every huddle,” Bradley sophomore guard Caroline Waite said. “We just made sure at halftime that it was going to be our best quarter.”

Entering the final frame down five, Bradley junior forward Isis Fitch hit a jumper after securing her initial miss and Waite knocked down a three at the 8:52 mark for the game’s first tie. As the two teams swapped chants of ‘defense’, ISU’s Paige Robinson, the second highest scorer in the MVC, hit a layup to reclaim a 46-44 Redbird lead.

Junior forward Daija Powell would cash in a layup for a 47-46 lead,  the Braves’ first lead of the game, at the 6:48 mark. Unfortunately for the home team, an old-fashioned three-point play from ISU guard Ta’Shonna Wright-Gaskins would gift the lead back to ISU at 49-47.

Bradley guard Ruba Abo Hashesh directs the offense. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

It wasn’t until Bradley sophomore guard Ruba Abo Hashesh knocked down a trey from the right corner that the Braves would take the lead one more time. Up 50-49 with 3:49 left, BU had all the momentum as the junior smiled her way down the court.

Held to a season-low eight points at the time, Robinson stepped up for the road Redbirds when they needed it in crunch time.

Nursing her left thumb from a collision earlier in the game, Robinson weaved through the Braves’ inside pressure and went on a 7-0 spurt, leading the Redbirds to close out the win via an 11-0 run.

“What Illinois State has is experienced and veteran guards that have been in this situation, they made the tough stops and shots down the stretch,” Popovec-Goss said.

Alex Rouse looks to drive past the defender. Photo by Jenna Zeise.

Waite led the Braves scoring with 19, as she shot 4-8 beyond the arc and 7-15 from the floor. Fitch ended up with 10 points and 8 rebounds while Powell brought down 10 boards and added six points. Perhaps the most impactful was Rouse, who hit the deck hard multiple times to save possessions. The sophomore only scored five for the Braves but stuffed the stat sheet with six boards, four assists, two steals and one block.

There is no doubt that the group felt like they had the game right in their hands. Rivalry losses sting but in a season focused on learning and gaining valuable experience, the effort from the Braves showed that maybe Popovec-Goss’ group is catching on to the message.

“What I told our girls is one day we’re going to be in that same position and we’re going to be the team that makes the tough shots,” Popovec-Goss said.

As for the return trip to Normal in February, the first-year head coach is already circling that date.

“The great thing about rivalries is we get to go to their place,” Popovec-Goss said. “So, it would have felt good to win one tonight, but it’ll feel better to go upset them at home.”

Before they can get revenge on the road, the Braves will visit Murray State for the first time in program history on Sunday. That game tips off at 2 p.m.

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