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Three is Braves’ magic number in 80-55 rout of SIUE

Members of Bradley’s bench high-five each other. Photo by Jonathan Michel

Wins haven’t come as easy for the Bradley Braves in 2021 as other seasons in recent memory. 

Looking to win three games in a row for the first time since mid-January, the Braves made winning look easy again, breezing past the SIUE Cougars 80-55 on Saturday afternoon. 

Three proved to be a significant number in the outcome, as the Bradley converted 10 3-point looks compared to SIUE’s two and the Braves shot higher than 40% from behind the arc for the third time in four games. The trend continues a reversal of Bradley’s early season woes of shooting and defending the 3-point shot. 

“Shooting more confidently, that’s the biggest thing offensively,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “We weren’t far off [at the Paradise Jam]. We’re starting to execute a little better [and] believe in the system.” 

After the Braves and Cougars engaged in a physical dogfight for the first 12 minutes, two triples from sophomore guard Jayson Kent gave Bradley a jolt, which led to a 16-0 run for the Braves.

With Bradley leading 23-22 with seven minutes left in the first half, senior forward Ja’Shon Henry finished an aggressive layup and Kent swished a 3 on the next possession after making his first deep ball a few possessions earlier. 

Kent, who was did not play at all in Wednesday’s conference opener against Northern Iowa, returned to form after two early fouls on senior center Ari Boya and sophomore forward Rienk Mast needed a break on the bench. Wardle’s decision to bring in Kent forced the Braves to play with a smaller lineup but it gave the sophomore much needed confidence shooting the ball.

“It felt really good,” Kent said. “The past few games, I’ve been in a little funk but just seeing those 3s go in built my confidence even more. “On the defensive end, we turned it up defensively and that’s what led us to our offensive breakout.” 

Kent finished the game with 13 points, with all of his field goals coming from behind the arc.

The Braves forced stops on eight straight possessions after the seven minute mark of the first, while 3-pointers from Kent, freshman guard Connor Hickman and sophomore guard Ville Tahvanainen keyed the run, which inflated the Bradley lead to 39-22.

 “[The] offense executed very well in the first half, other than turnovers,” Wardle said. “I thought we shot the ball at a high clip and got good shots for the most part. Defensively, we were pretty good after the first ten minutes.”

The Cougars, who featured three of Wardle’s previous coaching mates on their bench, began the contest strong, especially on the defensive end by forcing 10 Bradley turnovers and multiple tipped shots before the Braves’ 16-0 run. 

Bradley, however, matched the effort, with six first half blocks and never trailed by more than five in the opening stanza. The Braves finished the contest with a season-high 10 blocks and allowed only a pair of Cougars to score more than seven points: Ray’Sean Taylor (22) and Shaun Doss Jr. (14)

“They [Bradley] are a very big team, they might’ve been the biggest team we’ve played,” SIUE head coach Brian Barone said. “We’ve already gone to Marquette, we’ve gone to Creighton, I think [Bradley was] the most physical team we faced. When they were in gaps, they held their ground well and their length, their physicality, that’s what probably bothered us the most.”

Barone played collegiately with Wardle at Marquette before serving as the latter’s assistant at Green Bay. Despite the familiarity between the two coaches, Bradley and junior guard Terry Roberts gave the Cougars far too much to handle as Bradley took a 45-26 lead into the intermission. The Cougars only briefly cut the lead to less than 20 for the Red and White, who played in cruise control for nearly all of the second half.

Roberts led the Braves with 17 points to go with four assists and four steals. Henry added 11 points and five rebounds while junior forward Malevy Leons, Mast and Tahvanainen all chipped in nine. 

According to Wardle, the complete offensive effort stemmed from the Braves’ growing confidence in both shooting the ball and in each other. 

“[Whoever] can limit their mistakes and their runs and can execute better will win and I just think we’re just doing that a little bit better,” Wardle said. “I think you’re starting to see them gel a little bit more.”

The last time Bradley won three games in a row came in mid-January of 2021, a streak they will try to extend against scoring-heavy Toledo on Dec. 7. 

Comparing the Braves’ play over the win streak to trials earlier in the season at the Paradise Jam, Roberts and Kent say the team’s biggest leap has been their chemistry and response to adversity. 

“We’re starting to build a family culture with this group,” Kent said. “I feel like we responded better because we’re closer together. If one person is down, we’ll go like ‘You’re good, you got this,’ and we’ll respond to anything.

“We don’t hang our heads on mistakes as much as we did in the past,” Roberts said. “I feel like each and every game, we take a bigger step toward being the team we want to be.” 

Former MLB pitcher Lee Smith enjoys the action from the seats. Smith celebrated his birthday on Saturday at the game. Photo by Jonathan Michel

Braves Bits: Mast came up just shy of fifth double-double of the season with nine points and nine rebounds…The Braves’ 10 blocks are the most since they swatted 12 shots against Judson just over a year ago on Dec. 1, 2020…Bradley moved the ball around well, recording 16 assists compared to just five for SIUE…Hall of Fame MLB pitcher Lee Smith was in attendance on his birthday…BU’s Roberts kept the baseball theme alive, saying that his cousin, Marlon Anderson, formerly played in the MLB as well…Former Bradley assistant coach Tony Barone, father of SIUE head coach Brian Barone was honored on the video board before the game…The elder Barone passed away in 2019…“ We all miss him but you see how many lives he’s impacted as a coach, whether its players or coaches that are still going is pretty phenomenal and it’s really why you do this as a coach,” Wardle said.

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