It was the most made 3’s allowed by Northern Iowa at the McLeod Center ever. It was also the third-most triples made by the Braves in a single game.
In the 77-69 victory over Northern Iowa (12-12, 8-6) Saturday evening, Bradley (17-8, 10-4) kept the Panthers on their heels by hitting 16 triples that sunk the hopes of the UNI faithful looking for the upset.
“I think this game I was really just trying to lock into my defense and not pressure myself so much on offense,” sophomore guard Connor Hickman said. “I think that just kind of led to my offense happening because I was so focused on the defensive end.”
Hickman’s grin postgame was the result of his 17-point, three steal performance –both of which were career-highs. On top of the offensive outpouring, the guard locked up Northern Iowa’s sophomore star Bowen Born and held him to just 3-11 shooting from the floor.
“He’s a great player; he’s what makes them go,” Hickman said. “I really just had to focus because this was my job tonight. He’s going to hit some tough shots, but I have to make them all tough shots.”
With Born held to just 11 points, it was music to the ears of Braves’ fans who watched as their team, usually known for its depth, win in a different fashion. The trio of Hickman and Dutch forwards junior Rienk Mast and senior Malevy Leons accounted for 54 of the team’s 77 points.
That production was key for Bradley to claim its first season sweep of the Panthers in 17 years.
“There’s no magic sauce here, we’re just continuing to get better and continuing to build confidence,” Braves’ head coach Brian Wardle said. “We’ve had very consistent practices and you could tell our guys were locked in.”
It was apparent from the tip that Bradley, who claimed a share of first place after their win over Southern Illinois Wednesday night, was not going to be giving up that spot for free.
At the first media break, sophomore guard Zek Montgomery had earned five quick points as the Panthers held a 9-9 tie with the Braves. Born had knocked down his first 3-pointer, something he wouldn’t do until the end of the second half.
Mast kicked off the 3-point barrage when he knocked one down from the left wing at the 12:32 mark. Junior guard Duke Deen followed it up with another and Hickman nailed a three on the third consecutive possession to race Bradley out to a 24-17 lead.
“From three, we shot it confidently,” Wardle said. “We moved the ball, we made the extra pass [and] we found the open man.”
UNI guard Michael Duax provided a spark for the Panthers, but his jumper was the only thing that interfered with the Braves’ 15-2 run that gave them a 30-17 lead five minutes before the break.
Deen and Leons knocked down a pair of treys while Panthers’ reserve forward James Betz led the home team from the bench. His jumper and Born’s second bucket kept UNI within 10 at the end of the first frame.
After going in with a 37-27 lead, Mast was displeased being held to just three points.
“I wasn’t playing like I should,” Mast said. “When I saw my chances [in the second half], I just made plays and luckily, the balls went in.”
Bradley needed Mast’s production in the post and when Northern Iowa got the game down to a 52-50 Braves’ lead, the 6-foot-9 junior stepped up. After Leons drained another corner three, Mast scored Bradley’s next six points. A layup from underneath, a jumper from the right elbow and a second layup frustrated the Panthers who kept getting denied of the momentum.
Holding a 61-55 edge with 6:06 to go, Hickman came off a ball screen from Mast and pulled the trigger from the left wing. His fifth 3-pointer of the game put Bradley up nine, and after Duax answered with a layup on the other end, Mast simply repaid the favor for the 66-57 lead with 4:40 to play.
Born would knock down a trio of shots from the charity stripe and cash in his second three of the night but it was too little, too late. Afterwards, Wardle was clear about what was most important in the win.
“We’ve had a hard time closing some games out [but] we’ve been able to do that recently. Rienk [Mast] has been a big part of that, Zek [Montgomery] has been a big part of that and tonight Hickman was too.”
The win keeps Bradley tied for first with Belmont, Drake and Southern Illinois (if the latter is to win Sunday). The league, which entered Saturday with eight teams in the mix for first, has been highly competitive. A win in Cedar Falls may be what helps the Braves win their first conference title since 1996.
Next up for Bradley is the return trip to Normal, Ill. to face the Illinois State Redbirds. Just two weeks ago, the I-74 rival outrebounded Bradley and took the team to its first overtime contest of the season. Bradley was victorious then, but the Redbirds will surely be on high alert at CEFCU Arena Wednesday night with hopes to halt the Braves win streak at four. That game tips off at 7:00 p.m.