Road warriors is not a term anyone has used to describe Bradley basketball for a long time.
In the most confounding Missouri Valley Conference season in memory, even though the Braves remain tied for last place, they’ve earned a moniker usually reserved for champions.
Bradley won its third road game in its last four MVC outings away from home Wednesday, besting Northern Iowa 79-71 at Cedar Falls. It marked the first time the Braves have won three league road contests in a season in a decade.
And they achieved this victory at a place they haven’t won since 2008, ending an 11-game skid at the McLeod Center.
“I’m proud of how the guys are playing on the road,” said BU coach Brian Wardle. “They’ve been very resilient and aggressive. I like our vibe, our energy level. It’s been really good on the road and today was no exception.”
It was raining 3s at McLeod Center on Wednesday night. And for once, that rain wasn’t all purple.
Bradley (12-12, 4-7) hit a season-best 11 3-pointers in 20 attempts (55 percent). UNI (10-14, 5-6) was plenty good from distance, too, bagging 10 of 21.
But the Braves snatched control of this tight game near the end, thanks to the heroics of Darrell Brown.
The BU junior guard finished with 29 points. A dozen of those points came in the final six minutes.
For the game, Brown nailed five of his six long-range attempts. But his trio of daggers down the stretch allowed the Braves to finally overtake the Panthers.
“My teammates found me in transition a lot when I was open,” said the 5-foot-10 point guard. “I got some screens to free me up.”
The key word in that quote was “transition.”
Bradley pushed the tempo from the opening tip. The Braves raced to a 20-6 lead in the first eight minutes by sinking eight of its first 11 shots, beginning with a pair of Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye treys.
Even when the hosts surged back, eventually taking a four-point lead early in the second half, Bradley did not slow the pace. Nate Kennell came up big at that point, connecting on back-to-back 3-pointers and scoring eight straight points in 97 seconds to push the visitors back to a brief lead before Brown eventually took over.
While totally shifting gears mid-season from a big, half-court team to a smaller transition squad in recent weeks has been a difficult undertaking, Wardle deserves credit for sticking with a style that better suits this group.
Brown is so much better when he’s getting open looks before the defense is set than when he tries to do it by himself with the clock winding down. And Elijah Childs is much more effective when he has room to operate in the paint without it being clogged by big centers.
That’s the way it went down in the last meeting against UNI in Peoria. The Panthers throttled the Braves 65-47 as Brown was 1-for-7 for just two points against a much bigger defender in Isaiah Brown. The Brown vs. Brown matchup ended much differently this time in the open court.
“I’m proud of Darrell,” Wardle said. “He played with a different pace and aggressiveness. Great players figure things out, they make adjustments. I thought Darrell proved himself in this matchup with Brown.”
That first game – the Valley opener on Jan. 2 – stuck in the craw of every Brave.
“As a group, we all had a chip on our shoulder coming into this game,” Wardle said. “We remember how we played against Northern Iowa (at home). We wanted to come out and compete at a much higher level. We didn’t play perfect, but we played tough for 40 minutes.”
It’s the kind of effort Bradley will need in the final seven games to finish in the top six as unpredictable scores continue to mount in the league.
While BU, Indiana State and Evansville are all knotted in last place at 4-7, just two games separate those three from the 6-5 teams — Drake, Valparaiso and Missouri State — which are all tied for third place.
“The Valley is wide open,” Wardle said. “It’s a crazy league, a very even league top to bottom. It’s going to be about who makes those momentum-changing plays at the right time.”
On Wednesday at UNI, that team was Bradley. For the first time in this building in so very long.
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davereynolds2.