CARBONDALE — Bradley played small Sunday, but came up big.
Their first Missouri Valley Conference win in six tries, 57-54 over Southern Illinois, was the result of some hard-nosed defense keeping them within striking distance and some huge clutch scoring as the contest was being decided.
“We got the monkey off our back,” said forward Elijah Childs. “It’s a fantastic feeling. It’s just one game, but hopefully this will be the game that got us started.”
A big difference Sunday was coach Brian Wardle’s decision to play a smaller lineup for much of the game. That meant Luuk van Bree played center on defense much of the game — with some able help from Koch Bar — and power forward on offense.
Van Bree, known more for his offense, helped stymie SIU center Kavion Pippen, who was just 2-for-9 from the field. In the process, Wardle explained that with van Bree roaming the perimeter, Childs got more offensive touches around the basket where he’s more effective.
“A week ago, we discussed that we’d go this route eventually,” Wardle said. “We’ve tinkered with it some the last two games.”
As in their previous five league outings, poor shooting seemed to have the Braves headed for loss No. 6 as the game wound down.
They trailed SIU 46-38 at 6:27 — lugging a lamentable shooting percentage of .292 from the field at that point — when Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye made what appeared to be an insignificant free throw. Teammate Luqman Lundy followed on the next series with two more foul shots.
Moments later, the BU big guns, silenced for far too long as a group, arrived. And those weapons were blazin’.
Nate Kennell uncorked a 25-foot 3-pointer from beyond the top of the key to slice the deficit to three. The crowd of 4,327 shifted nervously in their seats.
“I looked at their (deliriously excited) bench after that and thought Kennell’s shot was the game-changer,” said SIU coach Barry Hinson. “When a team comes in 0-5, you can’t give them confidence, especially late in the game.”
The next possession resulted in Childs scoring on a drive-and-one to tie the game at 47. Childs tied it again on the next trip down the floor on an alley-oop slam off a perfectly timed pass from Darrell Brown.
Kennell then hit a pair of free throws to give Bradley its first lead of the half 51-50 before Brown took over to seal it.
The junior point guard hit back-to-back shots just as the shot clock was expiring each time — the first a 3-pointer from the left wing at 1:20 and the second an off-balance jumper near the left elbow at :32. Bradley’s lead went to 56-52.
“The first one was an easy shot once I got there,” Brown said. “On the last shot, I don’t feel anybody can guard me one on one. So I made a move, got to my spot and made it.”
Said SIU guard Aaron Cook, who was guarding Brown: “Gotta give him credit. It didn’t look like a normal shot. He’s a good player and he made a good play.”
Even with the late fireworks, Bradley finished the game shooting just 35 percent from the field. But the Braves held a 40-31 bulge on the boards – 13 of them offensive – and committed just two turnovers in the second half to give themselves more opportunities.
Southern Illinois, for its part, is suffering much the same fate as Bradley. The Salukis, picked third in the pre-season poll, one spot ahead of BU, is 2-4 in the league, losing all four consecutively.
“I know everybody’s frustrated and we’re not where everybody thought we’d be,” Hinson said. “The guys are trying, but they’re trying too hard. If you want to blame somebody, blame me. If the wrath is coming, please do it to me. These young men don’t deserve it. I’ve got to do a better job.”
Bradley’s been there, done that for the past month. One win doesn’t erase the pain, although it certainly eases it.
“We need to celebrate this one,” Wardle said. “We showed the toughness and competiveness that’s been missing a little bit in some games. But we can’t get comfortable. I know we can play better basketball still.”
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at dreynolds2.