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“We got out-toughed and punked”: Braves fall behind, foul their way to loss at UNI

Bradley men’s basketball discusses during a timeout in a game against Illinois State at CEFCU Arena. Photo by Rodrigo Perez

It’s become an all-too-familiar sight for Bradley men’s basketball.

In a loss against Evansville, they were down by 17. Against Drake, the deficit was 16. And even in a win against Southern Illinois a month ago, the Braves trailed by 21 at halftime.

The slow starts have become the norm, and junior guard Connor Hickman is sick of playing from behind.

“We’re not coming out and doing what we’re doing,” Hickman said. “We’re not executing the game plan very well and we’re kind of waiting until the second half to toughen up and do what we do.”

Bradley (18-9, 10-6 MVC) got out-rebounded, outscored and outplayed in a 74-63 loss to Northern Iowa (15-12, 9-7 MVC) on Sunday. The Braves were down 18 at halftime, another deficit in a string of large first-half deficits this season.

“We [the coaches] gotta figure some things out, but they have to do it too,” head coach Brian Wardle said. “We didn’t execute at all in the first half. We got out-toughed and punked in the first half. That’s the bottom line.”

The Panthers shot 52% in the first period compared to the Braves’ 31%, but it was UNI’s aggressiveness that Bradley had trouble matching up with. Throughout the half, Bradley was forced into uncomfortable spacing and UNI took away the Braves’ typical dribble handoffs, something that was a staple of their 85-69 win against the Panthers on Jan. 31.

Yet, as they’ve become so accustomed to this season, Bradley came back, bringing the deficit to as little as four in the second half. It wasn’t enough though, as a late UNI run put the Braves away and sent Wardle’s squad into a third loss in their last four games.

Eventually, something’s got to give.

“You gotta keep trying to get better and you gotta take it one game at a time,” Wardle said. “I’m more concerned with these slow starts and these halves where we struggle to score and our defensive effort. I absolutely am and I have been for months.”

The Panthers were active on the defensive end all day, swatting four Bradley shots and swiping six steals in the first half. Those six steals contributed to 12 UNI points and eight Braves turnovers – one less than they had the entire game when they played the Panthers in Peoria.

“We practiced, we prepared them [for] everything they did,” Wardle said. “We knew what they were gonna do defensively, they just executed it very well and were the aggressors and we were on our heels.”

In the second half, the Braves shot better and defended the Panthers well, holding them to just 22% from the field. However, thanks to 24 second-half fouls – and 39 for the entire game – Bradley wasn’t able to make up enough ground as UNI shot 24-27 from the charity stripe.

“We’ve gotta adapt and adjust to that but we had a lot of silly fouls,” Wardle said. “A lot of over-the-back fouls that we didn’t need. We gave them points in the second half that killed us. That’s stuff we always show our guys, we show them silly fouls. That’s playing smart now. Playing smart is not fouling and we did not do that today.”

“I think we definitely let it take us out of what we do in the first half and then a little bit in the second half too, on offense,” Hickman added. “We kind of let them push us off screens while we were dribbling the ball.”

Hickman was the only Brave to make more than one shot in the first half, finishing with 22 to match his total from the last time the two teams faced off. While Duke Deen, Darius Hannah and Malevy Leons all scored in double figures, the trio shot 1-6, 1-4 and 1-5, respectively, in the opening frame.

“I feel like we were being bullied in the first half and we just had to come out way tougher, way more physical and way more dialed in,” Leons said.

Immediately, UNI got out to a 19-6 lead thanks to a 13-0 run less than seven minutes into the game, one that sent Hannah to the bench with two fouls. Another 10-0 run ballooned the lead out to 29-11, as Bradley started the contest shooting 3-16.

The Panthers, on the other hand, made eight first-half threes and got a bucket from every player who checked in the game. Led by center Jacob Hutson’s 14 points and guard Tytan Anderson’s 12 rebounds, UNI was able to out-muscle and outwork the Braves.

“I tried to warn them for two days about physicality, how physical they were gonna go,” Wardle said. “We tried to simulate it in practice, but I don’t know if our guys believed us and they came out and were real physical with us offensively.”

Whereas every UNI player got involved, sophomore Ahmet Jonovic was the only Brave to score off the bench and was also the only player to see more than 10 minutes in the second unit. The game saw season-low minutes from freshman Demarion Burch (3) and the lowest minutes from freshman Almar Atlason since a Dec. 2 loss to Indiana State (9).

According to Wardle, no one suggested they should play more in the halftime locker room.

“Game was too big for our young guys today,” Wardle said. “And when you’re in a game like that you ask your staff at halftime, ‘who do we feel confident with?’ and the names that were said by the whole staff were the names that played.”

Leons did his best to force the Braves back in it once the second half hit, scoring nine straight points to bring the deficit to 10. A 16-3 Bradley run, and Deen’s first three of the game, brought a UNI lead that was once 21 down to four.

The Braves have been in this situation before, as they’ve made double-digit comebacks in two of their last three games. But just like those two games, it proved to be too little, too late.

“We woke up, we got tougher and we started to play in good spurts,” Leons said. “It’s just how we gotta be from the beginning because we dig ourselves a hole if we don’t start that way.”

“We got back multiple times and we know we can do it, it’s just not ideal,” Leons added. “[We] just want to be good from the beginning and play a full game.”

In their next battle, Bradley finds themselves in another rematch, this time with the Missouri State Bears. Even though the Braves beat them by 26 at Carver Arena, they know by now to not underestimate any opponent.

“You can’t be comfortable, ever, in this league,” Hickman said. “It’s a great league, teams are losing, teams are winning, people are moving up, people are moving down. You gotta treat every game like it’s the biggest one you’ve got.”

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