Entering the Missouri Valley Conference opener, Bradley owned the fewest amount of wins in the conference with a 2-5 record. Northern Iowa was fresh off a road win over No. 16 Saint Bonaventure.
None of that mattered with nine seconds remaining on the clock in Bradley’s 71-69 MVC-opening win over UNI on Wednesday night at Carver Arena.
Out of a timeout taken by Braves’ head coach Brian Wardle, junior guard Terry Roberts drove the lane, eurostepped around Panthers’ star AJ Green to the right block and banked in a layup with four seconds remaining to win the game for Bradley.
“The play was give me the ball and make a decision and just make a decision,” Roberts said. “Make a decision for the team, what’s best for the team and I did what was best for the team.”
The victory, which improves Bradley’s record to 3-5, is the earliest conference opener in school history and comes after the team dropped each of its first three single-digit games.
“Everybody had some moments to help us win this game,” Wardle said. “That was huge, to execute down the stretch. We’ve been in a lot of close games this year with three minutes to go, four minutes to go, and haven’t been able to close it out. It’s just good for these guys to feel that confidence of closing out a game like that.”
Roberts’ game winner punctuated a back and forth battle that started as an uphill fight for BU.
Northern Iowa started the game surging thanks to Green, the conference’s pre-season player of the year. The junior guard scored the team’s first nine points, helping the Panthers to a 13-10 lead at the 14:30 mark of the first half.
After the ensuing media timeout, Bradley thrived with Green on the bench. The Braves rallied to tie the game at 15, thanks to a transition layup by freshman Connor Hickman.
After falling behind again, Bradley tied it back up at 22 off a 3-pointer from junior Ville Tahvanainen. On the next possession, Tahvanainen knocked in another 3 to give the Braves their first lead at the 7:52 mark.
The treys triggered a 13-0 run for Bradley, which grew its lead to 32-22 and sent the Carver Arena crowd of 3,551 into an uproar. With three seconds to go in the half, Roberts cashed in a three from the left wing to push the lead to 39-28 at halftime.
“They outplayed us,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. “Give them credit for the game they played, in particular the way they played in the first half, so they had a cushion there to play with, so it took some work to get it back to where we had it… to eventually a one possession game.”
Out of the locker room, Northern Iowa got hot again, as Green made his first four shots of the half, including two 3s.
“I thought his first three of the game and his first three of the second half were like – ‘woah,’” Wardle said. “‘This is not good, if he’s making these.’”
Eventually, that hot start dissolved the Bradley lead into a tie game at the 11:32 mark, via a 3-pointer from freshman guard Nate Heise. After the make, Wardle burned a timeout.
The Braves responded in a big way, as Tahvanainen and senior guard Mikey Howell hit 3s on back-to-back possessions to grow the lead back to six and re-charge the crowd.
“They had a little run, but we didn’t let our heads down,” Tahvanainen said. “[On the first possession] Mikey made a great pass, and I was open, so I just let it fly.”
The two sides traded shots down the stretch, and the Panthers never let the Braves lead burgeon to more than six after the eight-minute mark.
With less than two minutes on the clock, Roberts and Green shined for their respective sides. With 1:57 remaining, Roberts hit a turnaround mid-range jumper to put the Braves ahead by five. Just seconds later, Green charged up the floor and cashed in a three from the wing to trim the lead back to two, at 69-67.
After a Northern Iowa timeout, both teams turned the ball over once, before Bradley missed two shots, setting up a UNI possession with 23 seconds to go. Green once again rose to the occasion and hit a turnaround 14-footer to tie the game at 69.
Following the basket, Roberts dribbled across halfcourt to Wardle, who called a timeout to set up the game winning play.
“We wanted Terry in an [isolation] at the top, no ball screen,” Wardle said. “Really, let him go one-on-one…”
The game winning bucket got Roberts to 20 points, four short of his season high. The game-sealing performance meant a victory for the Braves, but the night carried meaning for Roberts away from the floor, as well.
“I’ve been going through a little rough patch back home, and everybody’s been uplifting me and took my mind off it,” Roberts said. “I was out there having fun, like usual.”
Wardle pointed out the key for the 6-foot, 3-inch New York native was getting to the paint.
“He was very aggressive – he was in attack mode,” Wardle said. “He was getting to the paint, and that’s when he’s a problem. And he can play even better, that’s the best part.”
Green led all scorers with 30 points, making 11 of his 18 shots. Noah Carter followed for the Panthers, turning in 20 points – including 10 in the second half.
Outside of Roberts, Bradley also received double-digit performances from Tahvanainen, who turned in 14 and Hickman, who scored 12. Howell posted eight points, all of which in the closing half.
Bradley will return to non-conference play on Saturday at 2 p.m. against SIU-Edwardsville, which enters the contest with a 3-5 record.
“We know we can play with people,” Wardle said. “We had Colorado State on the ropes in the last two minutes. We just lost a little confidence in the Virgin Islands… We know we have it in the locker room, it’s just got to come out more consistently every day, so that we can get more connected – and that’s what we’re working on right now.”