It was the only way you could describe Bradley’s reaction to Belmont’s stunning 78-76 come-from-behind victory at Carver Arena Saturday afternoon.
“This one hurts,” junior forward Rienk Mast said while at a loss for words. “We got to sit in it, learn from it and move on. [There’s] a quick turnaround, but this one hurts.”
The Dutch forward was clearly emotional after the last-second loss, especially because his game-high 23 points and 11 boards wasn’t enough to save the Braves from defeat.
“Honestly, I don’t really care how I played if we lose the game,” Mast said defeatedly.
A game wrapped with exciting back-and-forth action received its bow on top in the final four minutes of play.
As Bradley held a 73-69 edge with 4:18 to play, Bruins’ phenom guard Ben Sheppard knocked down a pair from the line and cashed in a jumper to even the score at 73 with just over a minute to play.
Senior forward Ja’Shon Henry split a pair at the line while senior forward Malevy Leons went 2-2 at the stripe to put the Braves up 76-73 with 40 seconds to go.
Resembling much of the game’s previous action, it was Belmont’s Drew Friberg, who scored 21 in the Bruins win over Bradley in Nashville during late December, that hushed the crowd of over 5,800 as he drained a tough three from the left wing to even the game at 76.
With 28 seconds remaining, Bradley took a timeout. After the huddle, chaos ensued.
When the ball was walked up the court by sophomore guard Zek Montgomery, who scored a career-high 18 points in the Braves’ road win at Indiana State, Belmont forward Even Brauns stripped the ball away when Montgomery tried to drive the lane. That turnover set up Belmont for the last shot.
“I did not want that, that was not at all what we drew up,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We wanted to hold it till about 10 seconds and then execute the play. We shouldn’t have put him in that spot. That’s on us coaches; we should’ve had Duke [Deen] or [Connor] Hickman with the ball.”
Belmont drained the clock and went to the MVC’s third highest scorer in Sheppard. Driving the right-hand lane, Sheppard took a few steps and seemed to float in the air while Leons’ extended arm was not enough to scrape the shot. After the ball bounced around the rim and in, three seconds remained for Bradley sophomore guard Connor Hickman to throw up an unsuccessful heave from distance.
The 17-game home win streak was snapped.
“They always say basketball is a game of mistakes; Bradley made a lot of mistakes today,” Wardle said afterwards. “We were on our heels the whole game; very poor defensively.”
For Belmont making its first trip to Carver Arena, it was just about everything Bruins’ head coach Casey Alexander was hoping for.
“It’s remarkable how good those games were,” Alexander said. “I was disappointed with how we started the game, but once we rebounded from that, I felt like the last 25-35 minutes we played like [how] we wanted to play.”
Before the Bruins could settle in, Bradley made another win at home look almost guaranteed in the opening minutes.
Mast scored six of the Braves’ first eight points as they opened up the game on an 8-0 run. Fans poured the pressure on each time the Bruins brought the ball up the court and morphed into a frenzy each time the 6-foot-9 junior touched the ball. By the 12:01 mark, Bradley had doubled up Belmont for a 16-8 advantage.
Instead of frustration in the Bruins’ huddle, calmness swept over the group as if the scores were reversed. That assurance helped the visitors out to a 9-1 run over the next two minutes to tie the game up at 17, forcing Wardle to take a timeout.
“Really [the calmness] falls on them,” Alexander said. “I think we have a smart team and a winning culture and that helps in times like that.”
As both groups traded blows –Mast from the paint and Belmont freshman Cade Tyson from three– Bradley grasped a 32-31 lead with 3:05 left in the first period.
Montgomery, who started the game on the bench, threw down a vicious one hand slam off a turnover and upped BU’s lead to 38-33. The Bruins would score on their next two possessions and go into halftime down 40-37.
Bradley’s game plan to limit Belmont’s outside attack had not gone well. The Braves allowed the Bruins to shoot 6-13 from distance with Tyson knocking down three treys for 13 points at the break.
“[Belmont’s three-point shooting] was talked about at halftime; [it was] all we talked about pregame, in practice and walkthrough on Thursday,” Wardle said. “I mean that’s all we talked about and worked on and we did not execute defensively.”
Out of the tunnel, Leons drained a three from the right corner after scoring just two points in the first half. Like always, Belmont responded.
Three consecutive treys by Sheppard, Friberg and Sheppard again gave Belmont the 49-47 lead,their first lead since 5:59 in the first half.
The next time Bradley would take the lead by more than two came at the 6:55 mark when senior Ville Tahvanainen connected on his first triple of the game. The Braves led at that point 69-65 before Belmont squeezed out a win on the road.
Afterwards, Henry spoke on the streak entering the contest.
“We knew it was gonna happen eventually that we’d play a close game here. Coaches knew it, we all knew it. I hate losing, so this one burns.”
On the winning side, Belmont was able to shoot 12-27 from deep. Friberg (15 points) connected on five triples while Tyson (15 points) and Sheppard (23 points) cashed three each to keep the Bradley defense at bay.
Mast’s seventh double-double on the year helped the Braves as well as Leons’ 12 point, 10 rebound double-double. Henry contributed 14 points off the bench.
While the momentum from a road win in Terre Haute is gone, the Braves will have to make due with rival Illinois State blowing into town Wednesday. Until then, film, rest and practice awaits the team who couldn’t have endured a more heartbreaking loss in their own backyard.