Heading into its first-ever matchup against the No. 10 Arkansas Razorbacks, Bradley knew it had an opportunity to attract the national spotlight and move their winning streak to five games. The Braves though, quite literally, fumbled that opportunity away by committing a season-high 27 turnovers in a 76-57 loss.
The Razorbacks lineup, one of the lengthiest in the nation in terms of height, frazzled, chewed up and battered the Braves offense for the better part of Saturday’s contest at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock, Arkansas. With every member of its starting lineup standing above 6-foot 6, Arkansas was able to force over a dozen steals, score often in transition and prevent the Braves from getting many shots off.
“I’ve never seen in any of my teams where I’ve been a head coach, I don’t think we’ve turned the ball over like that,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. “That’s gotta be a record for me as a head coach. You’re never winning that game with turnovers and that was the number one key.”
While the turnover mark may have been unprecedented, how Bradley’s top-10 opponent went about doing so wasn’t. The 10-1 Razorbacks have an affinity for in-your-face defense, getting high-quality shots and setting up a picket fence of a defense that seems nearly impenetrable at times. All of those boxes were checked in their win.
“We knew that they were fast in transition,” senior forward Ja’Shon Henry said. “They get the ball on a make or miss and they just go.”
“They didn’t really do anything that we didn’t see on film,” junior forward Rienk Mast added.
The loss marked the long-awaited return of Henry, the Braves’ senior leader who missed the last six games with a concussion. Checking in just over three minutes into the game, the senior scored on his first offensive possession to give Bradley a 7-6 lead at the 16:11 mark, which ended up being its last of the game.
Arkansas reeled off an 11-0 run in the ensuing 5:17 of game time to go up 17-7 after a jumper from Razorbacks’ guard Anthony Black. At that point,, Arkansas had forced 10 Bradley turnovers and 11 of the Razorbacks first 15 points also came off of miscues by the Braves.
“All of us got to be better,” Henry said. “Our whole team turned it over a lot but it’s just one of those where you get back to the drawing board, watch some film, see what affected us.”
“We had too many segments where we weren’t tough…we just weren’t,” Wardle added. “Especially with the ball on offense: getting open, chinning the ball, squeezing the ball.”
A free throw from Braves senior forward Malevy Leons broke the nearly six-minute scoreless drought and after switching to a 1-3-1 zone defense that slowed down the Razorbacks, sophomore guard Zek Montgomery got Bradley to a 20-12 deficit with 9:03 left in the first half.
Junior forward Darius Hannah turned it over, leading to another fast break layup from Black that gave the Razorbacks a 12-point lead with 3:52 in the first frame, a margin that they would hold going into the halftime break. Although the Braves had 16 turnovers and just six points in the paint when the first buzzer sounded, their 37-25 halftime deficit wasn’t impossible to surmount.
“This is what they thrive on”
The possession woes for Bradley however continued into the second half. A Mast turnover on the first possession out of the intermission led to a fastbreak dunk from Arkansas’ Makhi Mitchell. A layup from Leons at the 16:59 mark – his first field goal of the game – cut the Razorbacks’ lead to 41-32
Then, the turnover bug bit Bradley again.
The Braves coughed up the ball six times between the 16:35 and 11:40 mark, leading to 11 Arkansas points that were capped off by a pair of free throws from Black to make it 58-36. Meanwhile, after a 5-point first half, the SEC’s leading scorer Ricky Council IV began to smell blood in the water and made a layup followed by a deep three-pointer that assisted in Arkansas’ landslide of momentum.
“I thought we would be ready for this game to put on a good show and compete with this team but it’s hard to simulate their length and speed,” Wardle said. “They’re a very handsy team, they’re very long and they’re very fast in the open floor and we just gave them way too many easy baskets off turnovers.”
“I thought we did a good job when we didn’t turn the ball over,” he later added when talking about defending Council IV. “Our goal was to get back, build a wall and they can play against our team defense in the halfcourt and when we do that, good things happen.”
To little surprise, Arkansas found more success in their halfcourt offense later in the game: the Razorbacks came into the game ranked 310th in Division I in first half offensive efficiency and 2nd in the same metric in the second half. The Braves played well in stretches during the second half, but could not get closer than 17 after going down 60-36 near the midway point of the half.
“They do this to everybody they play; they’re top 10 in the nation in creating turnovers and scoring off turnovers,” Wardle said. “This is what they thrive on, this is what they do. Their length and speed is elite. They’re definitely a Final Four-type team.”
The loss moves Bradley to 7-4 on the year with half of those now coming at the hands of ranked opponents after the Braves fell to No. 13 Auburn in Cancun, Mexico.
Strengths, struggles, and a highly anticipated return
After a slow start, Mast got back up to speed for the Braves and scored 11 of his team-leading 17 points in the second half while also corralling six rebounds. However, he and the rest of the Bradley forwards had their hands full with Arkansas forward Jordan Walsh, who had a game-high and career-best 18 points on perfect 7-7 shooting from the field and helped the Razorbacks force Mast into six turnovers.
Leons and junior guard Duke Deen added 11 for Bradley and Arkansas was bolstered by 16 from Council IV and 15 from Black.
“You’ve got to have that physicality; we lacked it today but [Henry] brought that,” Wardle said. “Rienk’s physical too and he’s gotta bring that toughness for 40 minutes and then we’ve got to have some other guys step up.”
Henry was held out of contact drills for most of the week in practice and while he didn’t make an explosive return in the stat sheet (four points, three rebounds), his physicality matched what many have come to expect out of him.
“It was cool, it was awesome,” Henry said about being back. “I’m very grateful I could be out there and help my teammates again. It’s always a struggle sitting on the sideline and watching them compete and play this game that all of us love.”
Things weren’t all bad for the Braves, who outrebounded Arkansas 32-26 and shot 17 of 21 from the free throw line after averaging a 66 percent mark all year. Bradley also limited Razorback freshman and future NBA Draft pick Nick Smith Jr. to five points and just one made field goal on eight attempts.
“I think we may have gotten a little too sped up at times but I think if we just calm ourselves down and play the way that we can play, I have no doubt that we can play with anyone,” Henry said.
Quite frequently the Braves stayed within double digits in the first frame thanks to their strong halfcourt defense; Arkansas just happened to fend off any momentum built against them by forcing more turnovers.
“Defensively, I think we guarded well enough to win the game, we just gave them 30-some points in transition off our turnovers,” Wardle said.
Back to the home hardwood
The game was Arkansas’ annual game at Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock, about a two and a half hour drive from its campus in Fayetteville. With a full capacity crowd of near 18,000, it’s safe to say the surroundings were a little different than what the Braves are used to in Peoria.
“As a kid, that’s the kind of games you dream of being in,” Mast said. “It was definitely cool to be in an environment like that. We haven’t been in environments like this that much but you’ve still gotta be ready; it’s still basketball.”
After not playing a game in 11 days –partially due to finals week– and not hosting a contest at Carver Arena since Nov. 30 against Northern Iowa, the Braves return to their home digs on Monday against new Division I member Stonehill to kick off a stretch of four games before the calendar flips to 2023.
Now, Identifying weak spots and improving in short periods of time is the mantra for the Braves who hope to start a new winning streak. They’ll do so with the lesson learned in Arkansas in their back pocket.
“We are going to win these games one day,” Wardle said. “We’re getting closer.”