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Zek Freak: Montgomery’s second half delivers big road win for Braves

Zek Montgomery shoots a corner 3 at Carver Arena. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics.

The Bradley Braves men’s basketball team needed someone to step up and tie the game, down 48-46 with 13 minutes left in Wednesday’s game against Indiana State. The Braves hadn’t seen a lead in nearly 20 minutes of game time, but were gaining momentum on the road against a skilled Sycamores squad.

Zek Montgomery delivered. 

The sophomore guard, who played off the bench for the first time in over a month, got a steal and finished a circus-like layup while drawing a foul, tying the game, then putting Bradley up 49-48. 

Fast forward 10 minutes later and Bradley still had the lead, but it was becoming tenuous after an eccentric technical foul called on the Braves and a 3-pointer from Indiana State’s Robbie Avila that made it 62-57 with 2:18 left.

Zek Montgomery delivered.

He knocked down a step back triple on the ensuing possession, followed by another 3-pointer 43 seconds later, which gave Bradley a 78-67 lead that held as the final score. Montgomery’s daggers were part of a career-high 18 points for the sophomore and all 18 of them came in the second half to deliver Bradley’s first road win since December 6, coincidentally the last time that Montgomery came off the bench.

“Coach Wardle got on me at halftime and I had to respond,” Montgomery said. “I responded well. He said I’ve got to just play harder and compete. I stepped up and accepted the challenge.”

“I hear all the time I got nice guys but I don’t have enough “dog” on this team and I hear that from people who are close to me,” Bradley head coach Brian Wardle said. I challenged Zek at halftime hard and he’s a guy that you can challenge and responds and he responded big time today.”

The win provided an almost-necessary rebound for the Braves after a clunker in their most recent road test at Drake and carrying a four-game losing streak away from Carver Arena. Following the game, the sheer relief and energy amongst the team was palpable.

Zek Montgomery shoots in the Braves’ game against Howard. Photo courtesy of Bradley Athletics

“I’m pretty fired up right now…I can’t even sit still,” Montgomery smiled, alongside junior forward Rienk Mast, who also put up 18 points, along with 13 rebounds to notch his fifth double-double of the season.

“You know when you go on the road that you’ve got to battle a lot of adversity and we were able to do that,” Wardle said. “We had to [substitute] through it, change our lineups here and then find a way offensively to execute with some different lineups and we were able to do that.”

“They started to separate and we came together”

A large chunk of Mast’s 18 points came in the first half with Bradley’s star big making his first three shots from the field, including two turnarounds with high degrees of difficulty. With Bradley leading 13-8 after the first media timeout and seven of its points coming from Mast, the Sycamores woke up shortly afterwards and gave Bradley their first taste of adversity.

Indiana State forward Cade McKnight came off the bench to score six straight while Mast was on the bench, igniting a flurry of two-point baskets. Slowly, the Sycamores shots from the post began mounting on the Braves, who were on the wrong end of a 16-2 run that put them behind 24-15. 

The Braves’ junior point guard Duke Deen ended the drought with three free throws while Mast and senior forward Malevy Leons added buckets in the paint to put the Braves within four points at the 7:33 mark.

Minutes later, Cameron Henry delivered an old-fashioned three-point play to put Indiana State back up 36-26, their largest lead of the game to that point. Despite the hosts’ momentum, the Braves’ mindset again never wavered as they went on a 12-3 run that spanned early into the second half and included field goals from four different Braves.

“Everyone had segments that helped us win and that’s what it takes on the road to win,” Wardle said. “Everyone’s got to pull their own weight, step up and make big plays in big moments. We were able to make big plays in big moments and they weren’t and that’s how we came out with a win.”

“A big part of that was when a team goes on a run, we’ve just got to come together as a team,” Montgomery said. “I think we did that excellent tonight. As the game went on, they started to separate and we came together so that was the big part.” 

Five Braves scored in double figures, including Leons (11 points, six rebounds) joining Mast and Montgomery among the starters with forward Ja’Shon Henry (11 points, eight rebounds) and senior guard Ville Tahvanainen (10 points, five rebounds) helping Bradley to a season-high 39 bench points.

Zek Montgomery and Malevy Leons share a hug. Photo by Larry Larson

Everyone chipping in

The stat that wasn’t so kind to the Braves were fouls. Indiana State got in the bonus with 11:21 left in the first half and nearly at the exact same time in the second half, shortly after Montgomery gave Bradley their 49-48 lead. Bradley sophomore guard Connor Hickman picked up his fourth and junior forward Darius Hannah picked up his third in the same possession.

But at the same time, Montgomery picked up steam and scored 10 points in just over four minutes without missing a shot. The Sycamores on the other hand, who came into the contest leading the nation in 2-point field goal percentage per KenPom, began to struggle heavily near the rim thanks to stout defense from Mast, Henry and Leons.

The Sycamores went 1-6 with a shot clock violation during a stretch from the 9:26 to the 6:25 marks in the second half. Coming into that span, Indiana State only trailed 56-55 but a layup and dunk from Leons plus baskets from Henry and Montgomery gave the Braves a 64-57 lead, their biggest of the game to that point.

Ja’Shon Henry defends against Illinois State. Photo via Scout Archives

“We went big, they went small, we stayed big,” Wardle said of his personnel choices. “We wanted length and size in there because we knew they were just putting their head down and jumping into us. They were finishing some tough shots in the first half and in the second half, I thought our length and size really started to bother them.”

Rotating the right players in to preserve the lead was paramount for the foul-ridden Braves. In fact, the personnel decisions were a whole team effort and helped Montgomery to his career-high point total.

“I challenged everybody after the Drake game, including myself, and I thought [assistant coach] Mike Bargen called a great game offensively to get the ball in Zek’s hands and [assistant coach] Jimmie Foster told me to put Zek [Montgomery] at the point cause Duke [Deen] and [Connor Hickman] had four fouls and it was the right call.”

A streak ended, big 3’s, and a referee gone rogue

The win prevented Bradley from losing back-to-back games for the first time since the Cancun Challenge in November and gave the Braves their first win at the Hulman Center since 2018.

“We were battling foul trouble all game too so not only were we battling their crowd [and] a good team, we were battling foul trouble too so it was a good character test for us and we needed this win,” Wardle added.

A 3-pointer from Tahvanainen put the Braves up 67-57 with 5:51 to go but they weren’t exactly able to coast to the finish line.

Deen fouled out with 3:52 remaining and during the media timeout immediately afterward, a referee attempted to enter the Bradley huddle and had a very brief encounter with a Bradley assistant coach that led to that same referee giving an oddity of a technical foul on the Braves.

Cameron Henry and former Bradley forward Jayson Kent each buried a pair of free throws to get the Sycamores within six before a Montgomery jumper gave Bradley more breathing room. 

Both Sycamores scored 11 points, one behind their leading scorer Courvoisier McCauley. Cooper Neese, a preseason all-MVC second team pick, was held to just five points on 2-10 shooting.

Avila and Neese missed Indiana State’s next two shots, but a 3-pointer from Avila then ignited the home crowd and made it 72-67 with 2:18 left in the game. That was until the red-hot Montgomery’s two triples hammered the final nails in the Sycamores coffin. In the second half, the sophomore shot 7-9 and helped the Braves to a 18-31 (58 percent) mark, outscoring Indiana State in the second frame 44-28.

“[My mindset] was to not let up and don’t let the referees control what I’m doing and what the team is doing,” Montgomery said of his late-game heroics. “I was just playing it play by play.” 

“He’s showed it a couple games this year in segments but he hasn’t closed a game like that for us yet in his career so I love what he was able to do today,” Wardle said. “He got it going and when he gets it going, his teammates know ‘let’s keep feeding him the ball.’” 

Finding the right piece to the puzzle

The win puts Bradley at 6-3 in the Missouri Valley Conference, tied for third behind Southern Illinois and Belmont, and 13-7 overall. Road wins are hard to come by in the MVC and after an exasperating loss to Valley favorite Drake, Mast says the team had a much better mental approach to Wednesday’s contest, which capped off arguably their toughest two-game road stretch of the year.

“I think we changed our mindset because you know the saying, ‘If you do the same thing and [are] expecting different results, then that’s insanity’,” the forward said. We definitely needed to change something up and I think we changed the right things this time. 

“I think my mindset going into this game was ‘just dominate.’”

The Braves return to Carver Arena for two straight, starting with a Saturday afternoon clash with Belmont before hosting I-74 rival Illinois State on Wednesday night.

Will the Braves enjoy the win? Sure they will, but they know the work isn’t finished just yet. 

“[The win] gives us more confidence but I don’t think it changes anything,” Mast said. At the end of the day, it’s one game again, but it gives us confidence and we got a big challenge coming up on home on Saturday. We’ve got to celebrate this one for sure and stay with this energy we’ve got right now but at the end of the day it’s just one game and we’ve got to realize that too.”

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