In the first 11 minutes of Bradley’s matchup with Drake on Friday night, it looked as if the Braves could knock off the first-place Bulldogs.
For the next 29 minutes, Drake showed why it is atop the Missouri Valley Conference, as they cruised to a 80-71 win over Bradley at Carver Arena.
The loss drops the Braves’ MVC record to 5-12, all but ensuring that the team will need to win the final game of the regular season to have a chance to avoid a bottom-four seed at Arch Madness.
“I loved how we started, our first 10 minutes, 12 minutes, I thought was really good,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “We just had too many breakdowns, especially when fatigue hit us.”
Both teams found themselves shorthanded, as Braves’ seniors Elijah Childs and Danya Kingsby and junior Terry Nolan remained suspended and Drake stars Roman Penn and Shanquan Hemphill were out with injuries.
The absences didn’t show in the opening minutes, as the two teams swapped buckets until the Braves gasped the momentum.
With 9:05 left on the clock in the first half, junior forward Ja’Shon Henry knocked down two free throws, which gave the Braves a 23-14 edge.
After the free throws, though, a switch was flipped as Drake ripped off an 11-0 run which helped them back into the lead for the rest of the contest.
“We got a couple turnovers on offense, we just brought our mental down,” redshirt freshman forward Rienk Mast said. “They got a couple easy buckets… They got the momentum and for us it was tough to turn it around.”
That charge was queued by Drake junior Darnell Brodie, who scored three straight buckets at the rim to start the run. That momentum eventually led to a dominant 21-point, seven rebound performance by the 6-foot, 10-inch forward.
“That’s a big boy,” Mast said of Brodie. “You’ve got to hit him early, try to push him out as far as possible. Once he gets position inside, it’s a tough job to get him out of there.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Bulldogs’ victory was their lack of bench minutes. Jonah Jackson and Issa Samake were the only reserve players to see the floor for the visitors and the two played a combined 11 minutes.
As a result, all of Drake’s starting five – Brodie, DJ Wilkens, Joe Yesufu, Garrett Sturtz and Tremell Murphy – reached double-figures, scoring 77 of the team’s 80 points.
“At the end of both halves, you could feel them being kind of tired,” Mast said. “But we just could not take advantage, I guess.”
The Braves, on the other hand, played four players off the bench, combining for 56 minutes and 14 points. Despite the deeper selection of reserves, fatigue was one of the biggest issues for the Braves, according to Wardle.
“With young players, when fatigue hits you, you usually, mentally lose focus,” Wardle said. “We got hurt today on that, for sure.”
While Brodie did damage inside, Drake’s 3-point shooting also proved detrimental to the Braves’ upset bid. The Bulldogs shot a torrid 54 percent from beyond the arc on 22 attempts, compared to BU’s 30 percent mark.
Those 3s helped the Bulldogs to a 19-point second half lead, which proved to be insurmountable in the final moments as Bradley closed the deficit to within 10 points.
Henry led the Braves for the second consecutive game, scoring 17 points and six rebounds. Mast added a 14-point, seven board effort.
The two teams will have a rematch tomorrow night at 6 p.m. in the final game of the regular season.
“There’s an opportunity for us,” Wardle said. “We’ve just got to try and make the most of it tomorrow.”