Despite having just six scholarship players available for the majority of Saturday night’s game against Drake, Bradley men’s basketball upset the first-place Bulldogs 67-61 to finish the regular season on a stunning high note.
“In my 11 years as a head coach, I’ve had some big wins,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “This is a top-10 win for me, personally, just because of what this group and season, what we’ve been through. It just seems like there’s always something this season… today was just one of those days.” =
After warming up, junior guard Kevin McAdoo was scratched because of a wrist injury. Sophomore guard Ville Tahvanainen was listed in the starting lineup, but the sharpshooter didn’t come back out of the locker room for tip-off due to a non-COVID-19 illness.
With Elijah Childs, Danya Kingsby and Terry Nolan still suspended, the Braves were already shorthanded.
With about nine minutes remaining in the first half, the situation became even more dire, as junior Ja’Shon Henry was tripped and injured his right ankle. After writhing in pain on the floor, Henry exited the game and never returned.
Despite that, the Braves were able to stave off multiple Bulldogs surges to clinch the victory, hence spoiling Drake’s chance at a share of the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title.
“I kind of got [caught] off-guard that we lost three guys,” redshirt freshman Rienk Mast said. “We needed everybody today and everybody showed up.”
After Henry’s injury, Bradley took a 29-24 lead into the locker room at halftime, Drake came back in the second half to seize the lead twice: once at the 13:22 mark and again at the 10:25 mark, but the Braves never trailed by more than three.
While Bradley never gained much separation, the Braves hit big shots in critical moments, leading to the victory.
Nobody hit more of those shots than freshman Jayson Kent, who posted a team-high 15 points, including five of the team’s six 3-point makes.
The 6-foot, 7-inch sharpshooter snapped out of a multiple-game shooting slump by knocking in three of those five longballs in the second half to replace the production of McAdoo and Tahvanainen beyond the arc.
“I was more shocked, when I heard [McAdoo and Tahvanainen were out]” Kent said. “I knew I had to step up and I just had to help my team.”
“I thought we took some rushed [threes] to start the second half, but Jayson came back and made big shots,” Wardle said. “He’s shown that in flashes this year – he’s got a lot of guts and he’s willing to take big shots and he made them today, and I was very proud of him.”
In the closing minutes, the Bulldogs made one final run, cutting the Braves’ lead to one possession and holding it there for much of the final minute. The team shot a near perfect 5-6 at the free throw line to hold on to the lead, but the exclamation point on the upset victory came on an inbounds pass with three seconds remaining.
Rienk Mast launched an overhand pass to freshman Darrius Hannah, who caught the pass in stride at halfcourt, drove to the basket and hammered down a one-handed slam over Drake guard Joe Yesufu, sending the small number of fans in attendance into a frenzy.
“When we drew up the play in the timeout, I already told him ‘If your man gets hit and you run, I’m going to throw it to you,’ and he said ‘alright, if you throw it, I’m going to dunk it,’” Mast said with a smile. “Well, his man got hit, I saw him wide open, threw it, and he did the rest.”
While the Braves’ position in the MVC tournament 8-vs-9 seed game was solidified prior to the final buzzer, the win means a great deal for the team, which finishes the season with a 6-12 conference record.
“We’ve got a little bit of momentum going into this,” Kent said. “We’re trusting people more. Especially me as a freshman, it boosts my confidence even more that we’re a step closer to a dream goal that I want to complete and win an MVC Championship.”
Bradley will have four days off before traveling to St. Louis to take on 9th-seeded Southern Illinois on March 4 at 5 p.m. The matchup is a rematch of the Braves’ first Arch Madness game of last season’s tournament, which the Braves went on to win.