Bradley University’s first trip to the big dance since 2006 ended Thursday with a 76-65 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament.
The East Region 15th seeded Braves stood toe-to-toe with the second seeded and fifth ranked Spartans, owning a 35-34 lead at intermission. But Michigan State outrebounded the Braves 23-7 in the second half and connected on 25 of 26 free throws for the game.
The Braves led 55-54 with 7:02 remaining, but the Spartans scored 22 of the game’s final 32 points.
“There was just around the six minute to four minute mark where we had opportunities with some good looks and they didn’t go down and they closed the game out and made some big plays and big shots and we didn’t. We’ve been doing it all year,” said Bradley coach Brian Wardle.
Elijah Childs (19), Darrell Brown (17) and Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye (14) combined to score 50 of Bradley’s 65 points. Lautier-Ogunleye led the Braves in rebounding with eight.
“We pride ourselves on being tough and playing defense and we play in one of the toughest conferences in the country,” Brown said, “so we have been prepared for this moment all year. I wish we could have got some shots to fall down the stretch so we could have pulled the win out.”
The loss stopped an incredible end of season run for the Braves. After starting the Missouri Valley Conference season 0-5, Bradley won 12 of its last 17 games and won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament with a dramatic comeback from an 18-point deficit.
It was a difficult loss for a Bradley senior class, including Lautier-Ogunleye, that won just five games its freshman year.
“No shortcuts. Nothing that we did was simple,” Lautier-Ogunleye said, “years of hard work, years of believing, years of trusting and just staying together. We couldn’t have done this without everyone being together and helping each other out.”
Michigan State redshirt senior forward Kenny Goins said he was not surprised by Bradley’s performance.
“Not at all,” Goins said. “We thought they’d come out and shoot lights out to start. They showed us everything they got, because for them it was a once-in-a-career chance.”
But, for Bradley’s returning players, it won’t be if Wardle says they learn from the experience.
“We have to play with an urgency every single game,” Wardle said. “I thought today there weren’t many teams that were going to beat us. But if we can put it together for a full season and not have any lulls and take care of business, the Valley prepares us for this. I thought our guys were tremendous today in that aspect of the fight in their heart.”
Braves senior Luuk von Bree said the tournament experience is one he’ll never forget.
“In terms of March Madness I can honestly and truly say it’s just madness,” von Bree said. “I’ve never high-fived so many people in my life, I’ve never been clapped for so much. We’ve had police escorts. A whole bunch of the greatest stuff and I’m sure I’m going to tell my kids about it and they’ll never believe me.”
The four-hour distance between Peoria and Des Moines, Iowa brought many red-clad Braves fans to Wells Fargo Arena, and the Braves noticed.
“We had a lot of fans travel from Peoria and we are thankful for that,” Childs said. “It was a great atmosphere playing in a big crowd and a big setting like this. It was great. I dream about this. We will be back here next year. So I’m looking forward to getting back to work.”
“Our fans do a great job of traveling and supporting us regardless of the circumstances,” Brown said. “Hats off to them. I enjoyed it. It was a blessing to be out there today.”
Michigan State was led in scoring by Cassius Winston with 26 points and Xavier Tillman, who scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half. Matt McQuaid added 10 points for the Spartans.
Bradley finishes its season 20-15 and the loss snapped a streak of 10 wins by Missouri Valley Conference teams in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State advances to Saturday’s second round to play Minnesota. The 10th seed Gophers upset No. 7 seed Louisville 86-76 earlier Thursday.
Video courtesy NCAA