NORMAL – It had been quite a 10 days for Bradley heading into Saturday night’s Missouri Valley Conference game at Illinois State.
During that stretch came the end of an 11-game losing skid at Northern Iowa, a giddy 96-point home effort in a 29-point win over Indiana State and a fiercely contested victory over first-place Loyola. All great accomplishments in their own right.
But none compared to snapping the 11-game losing streak at Redbird Arena and a season sweep of their arch rivals. No matter how ISU finishes the year, the 65-59 victory was a signature win for the Braves in this improbable storybook comeback from an 0-5 start in the Valley.
“We’ve made a lot of good steps this year as the program,” said BU coach Brian Wardle. “We had a bad five weeks or so. But we’ve done some things that haven’t been done at Bradley in a while. I’m proud of these seniors for finally getting a win here.”
It was the fourth win in a row and seventh in the last nine for Bradley, which evened its MVC record at 7-7. The Braves moved into a tie for fourth place with Illinois State and Southern Illinois.
And they couldn’t have done it without a freshman who was getting his first look at the road version of the league’s best rivalry. Ja'Shon Henry scored 11 points and snagged six rebounds and a blocked shot in 18 minutes off the bench. He also sank the first 3-pointer in a Bradley uniform.
“The guys said this was a tremendous atmosphere to play in,” Henry said. “It’s great to get this win for our seniors especially. They’ve been looking to win here in their four years.”
ISU coach Dan Muller singled out Henry as he described how well the visitors played.
“Credit to Bradley,” Muller said. “They were better than us tonight. If you had to pick one guy, I’d pick Henry. He was a difference-maker.”
As important as Henry’s performance was to the Braves, the guy who really got them going was another reserve, Nate Kennell. If a guy who played 34 minutes can be called a reserve.
Illinois State stormed to an 11-0 lead in the first three minutes before Wardle called time and the Braves got going. And it was Kennell who led the charge.
The Metamora junior hit a 3 in transition and followed it with a driving layup. Several minutes later came another 3-pointer followed by another.
And, for his finale, a trey from the corner at the first-half buzzer giving the Braves their first lead, 33-30, finishing an 8-0 run.
“Momentum going into the locker room is always big,” Wardle said. “Nate was very confident, very aggressive. I’m proud of him being a local kid in this game. He knows how big this game is and how fun it is.”
On the other side, Muller noted how critical that stretch was for his team since leading scorer Milik Yarbrough had twisted his ankle in the final minutes of the first half and had to sit out the rest of the period. Yarbrough came back in the second half and would finish with 20 points.
“It was huge,” Muller said. “Without a doubt, when Milik went down, it hurt us. He couldn’t move as well once he got hurt.”
Kennell was 4-for-4 on 3s in the first half for 15 points. He wouldn’t score another point. But he didn’t need to.
His teammates picked up the baton in the second half, building a 10-point lead by 7:32. The ISU fans among the 9,011 — the biggest crowd of the season at Redbird — sat stunned, while the sizeable Bradley contingent in the upper bowl roared its approval.
“I loved our grit, I loved our toughness,” Wardle said. “It was not our A game on the basketball floor, but we stayed together and I liked how we were playing.
“We’re just a team. Guys picked each other up. Everybody had their moment. That’s how we have to win on the road.”
This was Bradley’s fourth road win in the Valley in seven games. Two huge ones remain — Tuesday at second-place Drake and March 2 at first-place Loyola.
“It’s the best time to peak here coming down the stretch in February,” Kennell said. “Nobody wins any championships in November and December. If we can keep staying together and staying humble and keep doing our jobs, I think we can keep going on a run.”
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davereynolds2.