After 13 years, and a strong finish to the season, Bradley gets back to the Big Dance

ST. LOUIS, MO - MARCH 10: Members of the Bradley Braves celebrate after beating the Northern Iowa Panthers in the final game of MVC Basketball Tournament at the Enterprise Center on March 10, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. The Bradley Braves beat the Northern Iowa Panthers 57-54 to win the MVC Championship. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

ST. LOUIS  — Those who followed the conference all season long knew that “Arch Madness” could be just that at the Enterprise Center this weekend.

Those in Peoria, who have followed Bradley basketball over the past month, knew that their team could play a big part in the chaos to decide the Missouri Valley Conference’s representative for the NCAA Tournament.

Indeed all of these scenarios played out this weekend in St. Louis, and because of that, the State of Illinois will have a team in the 2019 NCAA Tournament.

One might argue that they’re playing the best basketball of any Division I basketball team in the Land of Lincoln at the moment.

After beating higher seeds in Missouri State and Loyola on Friday and Saturday, of the MVC Tournament, the Braves rallied from an 18-point deficit in the second half against Northern Iowa in the championship on Sunday. The 57-54 victory gives Bradley, a fifth-seed in the tournament, their first conference tournament title since 1988 and a berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.

It will be their ninth appearance in the “Big Dance” and the first since that memorable run 13 years ago. Led by eventual NBA Lottery pick Patrick O’Bryant, the Braves went 22-11, got an at-large bid to the tournament, then upset Kansas then Pittsburgh en route to a Sweet 16 appearance. It’s the farthest the Braves have gone in the tournament in the modern era, with the team having been the NCAA Runner-Up in 1950 when it was just an eight-team playoff.

After knocking off regular season co-champ Loyola 53-51 on Saturday, head coach Brian Wardle’s team came out slow against the Panthers, falling behind by 12 at halftime then by 18 on an AJ Green three-pointer with 17:08 to go. Then the Braves woke up, outscoring Northern Iowa 40-19 to finish out the game.

It sparked a massive celebration on the floor as fans joined the players at mid-court to celebrate a moment that was a long time coming but perhaps they saw with their team down the stretch this season.

On Feb. 2, Bradley sat at 3-7 in Missouri Valley Conference play after a 72-68 home loss to Southern Illinois. Following that defeat, the Braves found their stride, winning their next four games-in-a-row, including a home win over eventual co-champion Loyola on Feb. 13.

They’d go onto win six of their last eight games of the season to boost their conference record to 9-9 and earn the fifth seed for the tournament.

Like their season itself, Bradley had to rally just to get past the tournament quarterfinals on Friday against Missouri State. They trailed by seven at halftime, but with help from Darrell Brown (20 points), the Braves outscored the Bears 39-29 for the victory.

Saturday wasn’t about rallying, but rather surviving, as they stood toe-to-toe with regular season co-champion Loyola from start to finish. They took the lead for good with 3:11 left on a Ja’Shon Henry bucket and then held off the Ramblers the rest of the way for a two-point win.

Sunday’s comeback topped them all, with an 18-point deficit ending a 13-year tournament drought.

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