The beach is supposed to be fun. Vacations are supposed to be fun.
Fun is not the word to describe these past two days for Bradley men’s basketball (3-3), who dropped their second game in Cancún, Mexico – this time in a 55-44 loss to Liberty (3-3) on Wednesday.
Coming off an 85-64 loss to No. 13 Auburn, a bounce back performance was needed from head coach Brian Wardle’s squad. Missing yet another player – this time being junior guard James ‘Pop’ Weathers due to illness – the Braves came up empty against the preseason favorites in the ASUN conference.
“As a group, we didn’t play very well tonight,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “We competed, we stayed in there. We just couldn’t string it together.”
As a team, Bradley shot just 32 percent from the field and 17 percent from three, both of which were season-lows. In fact, both sides struggled in the low-scoring affair, shooting a combined 26 percent from beyond the arc.
“It was kind of surprising,” senior forward Malevy Leons said. “Shots we normally make, we missed. I missed a couple of layups that I normally feel like I can make.”
Leons was a bright spot on the night, finishing with 17 points and 10 rebounds, his first double-double of the season. Cleaning the glass was not so easy for the rest of the Braves however, as Liberty outrebounded them 41 to 28, including a 14 to seven difference on the offensive side.
“Honestly we just got beat up inside both nights,” Wardle said. “Gave up too many offensive rebounds, long rebounds [and] we couldn’t track down the 50/50s. The inside play really hurt us.”
Despite the struggles on offense and on the boards, the Bradley defense remained stout, holding the Flames to just two makes from downtown in the first half and keeping ASUN Preseason Player of the Year Darius McGhee at bay with just five points heading into halftime. Averaging 20.8 points through six games this season, McGhee was the nation’s second-leading scorer a year ago.
Yet, Wardle’s squad went into halftime down six, a testament to the struggles they had with the ball in their hands.
“We guarded well enough in the first half, we just couldn’t get out and go,” Wardle said.
It was a slow start out of the gates, but a three at the 9:54 mark in the first by sophomore Christian Davis – the Braves’ only three of the half – gave Bradley an 11-10 lead. It would be the last time they led in the game, as they went 2-14 on long-balls the rest of the way.
Liberty struggled offensively as well, as the group missed their first 10 3-pointers but were able to put together back-to-back threes to make it 21-15 with 1:33 left in the first half. The Flames started 2-12 from the field but came back to finish 10-30 in the first 20 minutes.
McGhee looked to change the Flames’ fortune in the second half, knocking down a trey on the first possession. The senior would then score three more in the next three or so minutes, kicking off a 9-0 run from Liberty out of the break to make it 32-17. A steal from junior forward Darius Hannah led into a Leons putback dunk in an attempt to energize the Bradley bench and the product on the court, successfully charging a 10-3 run to bring the lead back to eight.
However, McGhee knocked down another 3-pointer with 8:34 left to make it 40-29. Four minutes later, he hit yet another one, bringing him to 20 points and matching the Flames’ largest lead of the night at 52-37, all but wrapping this one up for the Braves.
“He just keeps shooting until he makes them, and I give him a lot of credit,” Wardle said. “I thought we did a great job in the first half, [but in the] second half we let him get off a little bit.”
The Flames started the second half shooting 6-10 from three, with half of the makes coming from McGhee. The Braves, on the other hand, started 0-5 from beyond the arc and 2-9 from the floor.
“Offensively we really struggled, so we got to find more consistency in individual players,” Wardle said.
It’s been hard for the Braves to find any kind of consistency, as they seem to deal with a new injury every day. Already down two starters and veteran forward Ja’Shon Henry, not to mention the lingering ankle that sophomore Connor Hickman is dealing with or the illness of Weathers, the hope is that Wardle can iron out the rotation and keep the right guys on the court.
“You can learn a lot through adversity,” Wardle said. “The guys that played well last night struggled tonight [and] the guys that didn’t play a lot or play well last night played well tonight, so that’s kind of the juggernaut of who we’re getting and we gotta find that.”
Bradley will need to shake off the trip down south and get ready for a home affair with another preseason favorite in the Southeast Conference’s Merrimack Warriors on Saturday at 3 p.m.
“The season is still early,” Leons said. “We’ve gotta get healthy and we gotta get better.”