Down 67-66 with nine seconds to play, Bradley had not one, but two shots to win from their two leading scorers.
Both shots missed, and the Braves fell to Loyola on Saturday by one point.
Following a missed free throw by Ramblers guard Keith Clemons, Braves senior guard Darrell Brown had an open look at a 3-pointer from the right wing and airballed. Loyola fumbled rebound, giving the Braves one more look at the win.
Off a lob from senior guard Nate Kennell, junior forward Elijah Childs tipped the ball toward the hoop with seven-tenths of a second on the clock and the shot rimmed out.
A crowd of 8,558, that was booming all afternoon, was rendered silent as Childs crumpled in a heap of disappointment and Loyola’s bench stormed the court in elation after playing senior day spoiler.
“[We] couldn’t have asked for better two looks to take the lead,” Wardle said. “Loved the [Brown] shot, in transition, got a great look and then we got exactly what we were looking for, Eli on a little lob over the top off a switch … I thought it was in.”
“We got the shot we wanted,” Childs said. “They don’t fall your way sometimes.”
Another thing didn’t quite fall Bradley’s way before the final sequence, and it wasn’t a shot. With 12 seconds remaining, Kennell hit the floor on the offensive end with the ball in his hands and was called for the travel. The whistle appeared to have inadvertently blown, but the play was ruled a turnover, and the crowd showered the floor with boos.
Before the final minute, however, things were falling for the Braves, and they fell in bunches.
Loyola went to the half up 38-27, and eventually extended the lead to 13 with 16:32 remaining in the second half. Bradley responded with back-to-back threes by Brown heading into the under-16 minute media timeout.
From there, shots started falling like rain as the Braves dissipated the Rambler lead over the course of three minutes and took a 51-49 lead with 12:19 to play on a Kennell trey. The shots didn’t stop falling there, as the run was eventually extended to 20-0 over the span of five minutes.
“We turned up our pressure,” Wardle said. “We started just catching and shooting, we turned down a lot of threes I thought in the first half, and it made it more difficult by putting it on the floor. We got it going in transition and we got stops and pushes”
The crowd grew louder with each made shot and defensive stop. The streak culminated with a steal and slam from junior Danya Kingsby that burgeoned the Braves’ lead to seven, sending the season-large crowd into a frenzy.
The sequence prompted a timeout from Loyola head coach Porter Moser, and his message to the team was simple.
“The message was ‘settle down, we gotta execute, we gotta get something going,’” Moser said. “We didn’t for a long time.”
Out of the timeout, the Ramblers responded by snatching the lead back using a 9-0 run of their own. Their lead would grow to five points with 2:12 on the clock, before Bradley pulled back ahead 66-65 thanks to a Brown 3-pointer and a Childs and-one with 46 seconds remaining.
Childs’ free throw was the Braves’ final point of the day. The Ramblers won the game thanks to two high-pressure free throws by freshman guard Marquise Kennedy with 29 seconds on the clock.
“[Bradley’s] seniors were just willing that thing on a 20-0 run and it was deafening in there,” Moser said. “To respond to that with a 9-0 run, it shows we’ve been in situations, high-pressure situations in our program the last three or four years … We just stayed with it.”
On their senior day, Brown and Kennell paced the team, posting a combined 37 points and eight assists. Center Koch Bar, the Braves’ third senior, who was joined by his coaches and their families in the pre-game ceremonies since his family couldn’t make the trip from South Sudan, was kept out of the scoring column. The big man corralled three rebounds to go with a block and two assists.
“[It was a] heartbreaking loss,” Wardle said. “Seniors [had] an unbelievable run in this building, we all wanted to win it for them and we fell short.”
Childs posted a game-high 21 points to go with nine rebounds. He was closely followed by the duo of Kennell and Brown, who scored 19 and 18 points, respectively.
The Ramblers were keyed by a 16-point, seven rebound performance from junior center Cameron Krutwig.
With the loss, Bradley finishes the season with an overall record of 20-11, 11-7 in conference play.
With Indiana State’s victory over Valparaiso, the Braves will finish tied for third place with the Sycamores in the final standings. Because the two teams tied the season series, the tiebreaker is determined by Sunday’s NCAA NET (NCAA evaluation tool) rankings.
Entering Saturday’s action, Indiana State was ranked seven spots ahead of Bradley, so it will likely be the No. 3 seed, while Bradley will be the No. 4 seed.
The official Arch Madness bracket will be announced Sunday, with Bradley’s portion of the tournament slated to begin Friday afternoon.
“This exact same scenario happened to us last year,” Wardle said. “We’re hungry. That locker room is not happy right now, so that’s a good thing too, in a way.”