Missing three starters and playing with just seven scholarship athletes due to COVID-19 protocols, Indiana State defeated Bradley 76-71 on Sunday afternoon at the Hulman Center in Terre Haute.
The Braves (7-7, 1-1 MVC) were at full strength with the exception of senior forward Ja’Shon Henry, who missed his third consecutive game with a head injury. Bradley had its last non-conference game canceled due to COVID-19 protocols within the program.
“The wounded animal is the scariest,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We had to do that [playing shorthanded] a lot last year, and we know how it is; you can maybe sneak a win out here and there.”
The Sycamores, playing without starters Xavier Bledson (12.1 PPG), Cameron Henry (14.1 PPG) and Simon Wilbar (4 PPG), thrived beyond the arc, knocking down 15 of 35 shots from 3-point range to take the victory.
“This team has been pretty resilient, they’ve been through a lot,” Indiana State head coach Josh Schertz said. “This is the kind of game where, if you’re truly a competitor, this is the kind of challenge you want… This is the hand you’re dealt, let’s figure out a way, whatever it takes.”
Junior Cooper Neese combined with redshirt freshman Micah Thomas to lead the effort to find the way to victory for the Trees, as the backcourt duo posted 19 and 18 points, respectively.
According to Wardle, defending the pair of Sycamores and the 3-point line were the foremost goals for the Braves – and they failed.
“We played poorly defensively,” Wardle said. “Anything we talked about the last two days went right out the window… Really all three keys were [to] guard the 3-point line, Neese and Micah Thomas, that’s all we talked about, all the film and all we drilled, and we just had zero carry over.”
After a close onset to the contest, Bradley took control of the first half thanks to an 8-0 run just after the midway point of the frame, opening up a 32-21 lead.
The Sycamores roared back with a 12-0 run over the next five minutes to take a 33-32 lead with 3:10 to go in the half.
The Braves took the lid off the bucket down the stretch of the half, but Indiana State kept making shots, including a 3 pointer before the buzzer by Thomas, to take a 43-41 lead to the locker room.
“We just gave them breathing room,” junior forward Malevy Leons said. “Once they see easy shots go on, that’s when the hard ones are going to fall. We just gave them chance after chance… We should’ve killed them right away once we had them [down].”
After the break, Bradley briefly regained the lead with a 6-0 run before the Sycamores ripped off a 13-0 stretch, capitalized by a Kailex Stephens and-one with 11:30 remaining, which brought the crowd of 2,806 to its feet.
Trailing by eight, the Braves roared back with their own 12-0 run, tying it up with a Leons 3 and taking the lead on a two-handed slam putback by the Dutchman with 8:48 on the clock.
“I was happy I was able to turn it around,” Leons said. “I feel like I need to do that right from the beginning [of the game].”
However, the final pivotal run of the game belonged to the home team.
Starting with a triple from junior Cooper Neese which knotted the game at 64 with 5:09 to go, Indiana State used a 10-2 run to take the lead for good over the next three minutes.
With the Sycamores leading by three with 15 seconds left, Neese drove from the deep left wing with 3 seconds remaining on the shot clock and connected on a line drive 3-pointer against the buzzer to put the game out of reach for the Braves.
The dagger capped a game high 19-point performance for the guard, including three 3s in the last six minutes.
The Braves got their own 19-point outing from junior Terry Roberts, who added seven rebounds and a season high six assists.
Leons joined Roberts in double figures with a 11-point, 12-rebound double double. Freshman Connor Hickman rounded out the scoring leaders with 10 points in his first collegiate game in his home state of Indiana.
According to Wardle, the Braves’ veterans turned in an unsatisfactory performance with Henry’s absence.
“I don’t think my veterans played very well today,” Wardle said. “Ari did, but other than that my seniors and juniors, I don’t think, played very well. And you need that on the road, and [Henry] is one of them – he’s got the most experience on the team when it comes to minutes. Hopefully we can have him back soon, but we can’t count on it.”
The Braves will return to Peoria for their first home game since Dec. 18 on Wednesday night as they host Missouri State. Tip off is slated for 7 p.m.