PEORIA — Everything changed for the Bradley Braves on Jan. 14 as they walked off the Knapp Center floor shellshocked from an 86-61 loss at Drake.
Since that moment, Bradley is 10-1 and has played itself into a winner-take-all rematch with Drake on Sunday at Carver Arena. oversized t-shirt
What happened to these Braves?
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"That game is what has happened to this team," Bradley point guard Duke Deen said. "One of those profound losses, the bus ride home was cold, nobody talked. It was a mind-opening game.
"We knew to be able to reach our goals, we had to change and that game was the catalyst for us. We haven't forgotten."
Bradley coach Brian Wardle won't let them. Two days after that game, the coach wore a special, custom-made T-shirt that reads: "Bradley. 86-61. ESPNU." It has become a prized artifact of this season.
"They beat us pretty bad at their place. I was in here taking shots at 9 a.m. before practice, and he had that T-shirt on," senior guard Ville Tahvanainen said. "I think he's going to wear it all day.
"We're more consistent now. We're healthy. And when you start stringing wins together your confidence grows. I've never been in a winner-take-all game for the regular-season title, not like this. It's going to be a war. But it's a helluva opportunity."
Said Deen: "He had that T-shirt on all morning. He might not take it off until Sunday."
Wardle says he'll wear that T-shirt at practice again Saturday. Then it's time for the Braves to try to win their first regular-season Valley title since 1995-96. Sunday's game is 27 years to the day — with only a two-hour difference in tip-off time — from that BU clincher so long ago.
"It was a humbling experience," said Wardle, referring to the January loss at Drake. "Guys learned how precious every possession is. That was a one-possession game with five minutes left and then Drake went on a 19-2 run.
"We got mentally tougher after that game. Bouncing back, resetting. They exposed us in some areas. After that game, we met as a staff, addressed 'How can we play better?' "
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And now they are here, in a winner-take-all showdown with that Drake team.
Wardle has been in these situations, coached in one during his fifth season at Green Bay, coached in a lot of big games with Bradley in 2019-20, although not for a regular-season league championship. Deen has been in this situation once.
"I was in a winner-take-all game at high school," he said. "But not at this level. As a hooper, playing all your life, this is a game you live for."
The Braves are locked into a top-two seed for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, and the fanbase is excited about the showdown with Drake at Carver Arena. Advance ticket sales surpassed 8,000 on Friday afternoon.
The last Braves home game to draw over 8,000 was against Loyola, a 67-66 loss before 8,558 on Feb. 29, 2020. Before that, it was a 69-49 loss to No. 2 Wichita State before 10,257 on Feb. 25, 2014.
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• BU senior guard Ville Tahvanainen, on whether he will opt to return for a fifth year next season: "I've been thinking about it a lot. Right now I'm focusing on finishing this season strong. After the season I'll talk to my coaches, talk to my family and make a decision."
• BU coach Brian Wardle, on seniors Malevy Leons, Ja'Shon Henry, Ville Tahvanainen and Rienk Mast, who will be honored at Sunday's regular-season home finale: "I'm very proud of how all of them have matured and grown as men. To see how selfless they are, they've brought so much to this program. They will always have a legacy here."
Sunday's finale will be fifth-year senior Ja'Shon Henry's 120th career BU game. … Bradley has eight true road wins, the most since the 1987-88 team under Stan Albeck. … The Braves have won nine straight in the Valley, tied with the 1959-60 team for their third longest streak ever. … BU's 15 MVC wins match the 1995-96 team for second-most league wins in team history. … Bradley's sixth straight road win tied the 1963-64 team for sixth-longest in BU history. … BU is playing for a third Valley title in five years (two by tourney in 2019 and 2020). … The Braves have four 20-win seasons in the last six years under Brian Wardle. … Bradley is 26-3 at home (.896) the last two seasons. … The Braves are 7-0 in February. … BU is tied for the third-longest active road win streak in the nation (6 games) and seventh-longest overall win streak in nation (9 games). … Southern Illinois, Belmont and Indiana State are tied at 13-6 heading into Sunday's finales, and one of those teams is going to end up with the fifth seed and facing four games in four nights at Arch Madness. … Malevy Leons goes into the final regular-season game against Drake with 47 steals and 48 blocks as he tries to become the first player in MVC history to record a 50-50 season. … The Valley has five teams with at least 20 wins for the first time ever, in Bradley, Drake, Southern Illinois, Indiana State and Belmont. ... Bradley is a 2.5-point favorite over Drake on some online sports betting sites.
custom t shirt printing Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. He can be reached at 686-3206 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.