PEORIA – They’re not booing anymore at Carver Arena. They’re yelling “Luuuuuuuk!!!!”
Luuk van Bree, that is. The 6-foot-9 senior Dutchman, who has had an up-and-down career at Bradley, broke through with a career-high 21 points on 9-for-13 shooting Wednesday to propel the Braves to a resounding 85-68 victory over arch-rival Illinois State.
What about the tribute from the crowd, Luuuuuk?
“It’s great,” he said. “I really appreciate the crowd doing that. It’s something I’d never think however many thousand people would scream my name.”
There were 7,122 in full throat at Carver, a season-high crowd in a season of lows for the Braves in this building prior to Wednesday.
BU (10-10, 2-5) had lost all three home league games and had lost five of its last six before the Carver crowd.
On this night, though, all was forgiven.
After starting the Missouri Valley Conference season 0-5 and squeaking out a 57-54 defensive battle at Southern Illinois on Sunday, the Braves erupted with their best offensive performance of the year against the Redbirds (11-9, 4-3).
Bradley’s season-best field-goal percentage (.574) was 20 points higher than its average for the first six Valley games. The Braves made 31 of 54 shots, were 10-for-17 on 3s (a season-best .588) and dominated the boards 40-29 while limiting ISU to .377 shooting from the field.
“Credit Bradley,” said ISU coach Dan Muller. “They played great. Certainly the best game I’ve seen them play in a while on film. We got outfought. They were more physical than us. Not our best day. Really disappointing to see our guys play like that.”
The Redbirds started with a 9-2 lead. But then Luqman Lundy found Elijah Childs for a backdoor dunk and the Braves were off to the races.
They hit their stride in the final seven minutes of the first half, outscoring their rivals 20-6 to take firm control with a 43-26 halftime lead.
In the final minute, Muller was socked with a technical foul by Paul Janssen, a longtime Muller nemesis, when Milik Yarbrough was whistled for a charging foul.
“I didn’t deserve it at all,” Muller said. “The most ridiculous call I’ve ever seen. I didn’t say one word. I waved my hand maybe twice and he T’s me up from 50 feet away. Completely undeserved and unprofessional. I could not believe it.”
Muller can expect to hear from MVC commissioner Doug Elgin after those comments. Public criticism of officials is an automatic penalty from the league office.
Bradley picked right back up with the assault in the second half, led by van Bree’s trio of 3-pointers in the first five minutes.
“I probably got all my points off assists, to be quite honest,” van Bree said. “Guys found me in positions where I was open. It’s a credit to my teammates. When you expect the ball to come and the ball comes, it starts clicking.”
BU coach Brian Wardle credited his team for staying together and remaining mentally tough during the slump.
“We kept saying, ‘Don’t let our offense frustrate us,’ “ he said. “We made a conscious effort of doing that in the last week and a half. Even though we took some losses, I still knew we were staying together and I liked where we were going. The ball will go in and maybe we can find our confidence again.”
They were sure enough of themselves Wednesday to recover after letting a 22-point lead dwindle to 66-62 with seven minutes left after Redbirds Yarbrough and Phil Fayne took over the game. Yarbrough finished with a game-high 25 points and Fayne had 17 despite battling foul trouble.
“You’re not going to hold a 20-point lead very long against a team like Illinois State,” Wardle said. “You knew they’d make a run. We just had to withstand it.”
They did, thanks to back-to-back 3s by Brown and Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, which pushed the lead back to 10. Moments later, Fayne fouled out, a blow to the razor-thin ISU frontcourt.
The Braves then finished strong with an 11-3 burst. At two victories in a row, they own their first winning streak since Thanksgiving weekend.
“We’ve gotta stay together and keep sharing the ball,” Wardle said. “There’s no guarantees. It’s one game. This is a crazy business.”
The Braves’ remarkable offensive turnaround, however brief, certainly proves just how crazy it can be.
Dave Reynolds covers Bradley men's basketball for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3210 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davereynolds2.