Peoria, IL – Bradley Coach Brian Wardle did not like what he saw from his team as the last five minutes of the first half of its game with Missouri State on Tuesday night played out. The Braves’ first-half lead that had expanded to 12 points at one time was down to one at 29-28 as both teams walked to their dressing rooms at halftime. Wardle needed to have a talk, or more, with his players.
“Talk would be a nice word,” Wardle said through a smile in describing the tone of his halftime address to his players. “I’m a passionate, energetic coach and I didn’t like how we competed the last ten minutes of the first half. I challenged a couple of players to step up in the second half, and everyone responded. They needed a wake-up call.” “He got on us, he definitely got after us,” said Bradley big Donte Thomas. “We knew we had to show up and play better in the second half.”
Inspired off the court by Wardle’s talk and on the court by point guard Darrell Brown, the Braves ran off a 16-0 streak early in the second half to create separation on their way to a 72-52 victory over the Bears. The victory improved Bradley’s record to 15-7, 5-4. The 20-point margin of victory was Bradley’s largest in Missouri Valley Conference play in eight years. Missouri State fell to the same 15-7, 5-4 record.
Brown excelled from tip-off to buzzer in spearheading the Bradley attack. Solidly built at 5-10, the sophomore guard from Memphis led both teams with 14 first-half points. Brown scored from behind the arc off the catch and in mid-range off the dribble to his right. His two made baskets in the second half both came from distance as he finished as the game’s high scorer with 20 points. “Darrell Brown was the best player in the gym tonight,” said Missouri State Coach Paul Lusk.
As important as Brown’s 20-point night was to the Bradley effort, it could be argued his ball handling was equally important. Brown’s eight assists were twice as many as any other player and in 34 minutes of play, he committed no turnovers. “We shared the ball in the second half,” said Wardle. “We’re a team that makes the extra pass and scores by committee.”
Bradley bigs Thomas, a senior, and Elijah Childs, a freshman, came to life on the offensive end in the second half to finish with 13 and 12 points, respectively. Thomas has stepped up his game since the start of conference play. After averaging 8.5 ppg in 13 non-conference games, Thomas entered Tuesday night’s game with a 13 ppg average against conference opponents and hit that number against Missouri State. Thomas scores from two levels in mid-range and at the rim. He faced up his defender late in the second half and knocked down a jump shot over the top of him.
Thomas and Childs finished a number of lob passes, usually delivered by Brown, with two-hand dunks. Bradley had success running Brown or Childs along the baseline while Brown played off a ball screen at the top of the key. Taking advantage of a snoozy Missouri State off-ball defender, Thomas or Childs would cut along the baseline, take the lob pass from Brown and finish the play with a dunk. “We practice lobs plays like that twice a week,” said Wardle. “You have to have players who can go and get the ball, that helps. (Bradley assistant) Coach Bargen saw something with their weak side defenders turning their heads and we thought we could take advantage of it.”
Brown said the athleticism and leaping ability of Thomas and Childs were the key in making the lob-dunk play work. “I feel like with the way they can jump, all I have to do is throw it near the basket and let them go get it,” he said. Thomas credited the chemistry he developed with Brown as the foundation for the lob-dunk play success. “It starts off the court by developing trust,” he said.
Wardle was an offensive-minded wing player in a four-year career at Marquette that saw him lead the Golden Eagles to two post-season tournaments. Defenses usually paid the price for giving Wardle space to shoot a mid-range jump shot either off the dribble of curling off a screen. When Marquette staged a celebration this past summer to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of its basketball program, Wardle was one of the highlighted players the school invited to speak to the audience as part of a panel discussion. But in holding a Missouri State team averaging over 70 ppg to 52 on Tuesday night, it was understandable why Wardle want to talk just as much about his team’s defense as offense. “Every single day in practice we stress defensive fundamentals,” said Wardle. “It’s our identity. We were active in the gaps and our ball pressure was consistent. I love it when we’re taking charges like we did tonight. Everyone did their job defensively in the second half.”
Missouri State was picked by all the preseason publications to win the Missouri Valley. Prognosticators’ primary reason for picking the Bears for the top spot was the return of first-team all-conference senior Alize Johnson. A 6-7 player with a low post and perimeter skill set, Johnson declared for the NBA draft last spring before withdrawing his name to return for his senior season. He posted 17 double-doubles in 2016-17 in leading the Valley in rebounding and finishing sixth in scoring. But Johnson got off to a bad start picking up his first foul in the first minute of play that turned into a miserable start when he was whistled for his second foul in the second minute of play. Lusk attempted to massage Johnson’s playing time the rest of the half, but when Johnson charged into a Bradley defender to pick up his third foul at the eight minute mark, Lusk had little choice but to rest Johnson for the remainder of the first half.
“It was hard,” said Lusk of managing Johnson’s foul issues. “He (Johnson) was in serious foul trouble immediately and couldn’t get into the flow. He’s our number one inside threat and we really struggled to score without him.” Johnson played only 15 minutes scoring seven points and pulling down five rebounds. He entered the game averaging over 15 points and 11 rebounds per game.
The game featured one player from each team with NBA bloodlines. Tanveer Bhullar, a 7-2 graduate senior who transferred to Missouri State from New Mexico State, played five minutes for the Bears. Bhullar is the younger brother of Sim Bhullar, who suited up for the Sacramento Kings in 2015 to become the first player of Indian descent to play in the NBA. Playing six minutes off the bench for Bradley was 6-7 Ryan Stipanovich, a nephew of Steve Stipanovich who played five seasons in the NBA for the Indiana Pacers after starring at Missouri.
Bradley takes to the road for its next game on January 28 when it travels to Indiana State. Missouri State returns to its Springfield, Missouri home to open a two-game homestand against Southern Illinois on January 27.
This article was written by Tom Osowski, a correspondent and scout for NetScouts Basketball. You can follow us on Facebook, or on twitter. We are looking for those interested in our basketball scout certification program. For information contact us and forward your resume.