Bradley holds off Saluki Men’s Basketball, 68-62

By Tom Weber 

PEORIA, Ill. — Bradley held off a late rally by Southern Illinois, closing the game on a 7-2 run in the final minute, to beat the Salukis, 68-62, on Tuesday night at Carver Arena.

The Salukis (10-8, 2-3) never led in the second half and trailed by as many as nine points, but four times they cut the deficit to one. Every time, however, the Braves (13-5, 3-2) answered with a basket at the other end.

Armon Fletcher going up for two of his twelve points in SIU’s loss to Bradley last night.

At 6:43, Tyler Smithpeters drained a 3-pointer for SIU to trim the deficit to 51-50. Bradley countered with a driving layup by Donte Thomas. On Southern’s next possession, Armon Fletcher‘s pull-up jumper cut it to 53-52, but Thomas again powered his way to the hoop for an easy bucket to extend Bradley’s lead to 55-52. An athletic power forward, the 6-foot-7 Thomas used his interior quickness to make 8-of-10 shots and finish with a game-high 22 points.

“We played (Thomas) at the five a lot more tonight, just because we thought we’d have the quickness advantage,” said Bradley coach Brian Wardle. “We thought they might put Fletcher on him, which is good for us, I thought. Our lone senior stepped up and made plays.”

The Braves were up by seven, 59-52, with less than four minutes to play, when the Salukis made one final push. Sean Lloyd rolled in a short jumper, was fouled and made the free throw to pull SIU within four, 59-55. After a shot clock violation by Bradley, Smithpeters connected on his third 3-pointer of the game to make it 59-58 with 2:56 left. He scored 13 points off the bench for SIU.

“Southern Illinois does a good job of putting four shooters out, spreading you, setting ball screens, and they have the big fella inside,” Wardle said. “We had late weak-side help a couple times, we over-helped a couple times, and they made us pay every time.”

Trailing, 59-58, the Salukis needed a defensive stop but couldn’t get it, as Jayden Hodgson drove the lane and made a floater with 2:27 to go. Known more for his perimeter shooting, Hodgson was only 1-of-6 from 3-point range, but finished with 11 points, two assists and four steals.

“I thought Jayden made some huge plays for us — passes, drives, that floater was a big-time shot,” Wardle said.

Southern closed the deficit to a single point one more time on a jumper by Kavion Pippen to make it 61-60 at the 1:04 mark. Thomas then hit the game’s biggest bucket, blowing past Pippen for a layup and foul. The three-point play pushed the lead to 64-60. Hodgson sealed the win with four free throws in the final 24 seconds.

“(Thomas) stepped up and made a huge play with confidence,” Wardle said. “That’s just a player making a play. I don’t think we played particularly well in the second half, luckily we were able to make enough plays and make our free throws.”

Both teams struggled to shoot from the perimeter — SIU was 5-of-18 and Bradley was 5-of-21. The game came down to which team was better able to execute inside the arc.

“When a game is tight, guys are thinking offense, and it’s got to be the other way,” said SIU head coach Barry Hinson. “Just get a stop and we’ll get a chance. You can’t trade baskets, and that’s what we did.”

In addition to Smithpeters, three players scored double figures for the Salukis. Lloyd led the way with 14 points to go with six rebounds and six assists. Pippen had 13 points, nine rebounds and three assists. Fletcher added a dozen points.

“This was so much better than the feeling I had when we went to Valpo,” Hinson said. “We were never in the game at Valpo.”

Bradley earned an early leg up in what promises to be a wild Missouri Valley Conference race, but there are still 13 more league games to go for both teams, and the Braves must still return to Carbondale.

“This is going to be the Missouri Valley this year,” Wardle said. “There’s going to be a lot of 2-3 possession games. Anyone can beat anyone on any given night. The big key is holding home court and now you gotta go on the road and try to steal some.”

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