Seven days after being handed its ninth conference loss in a lopsided 81-68 game at Loyola’s senior day, the Bradley Braves returned the favor with a shock to the Missouri Valley Conference.
MVC Player of the Year Marques Townes’ mid-range jumper to tie the game at the buzzer banged off the rim and the Braves booked their stay in St. Louis for one more night with their 53-51 win over Loyola in Saturday’s semifinal round.
Then Sunday’s championship game presented itself with yet another Arch Madness classic.
Three minutes into the second half of the MVC championship game, Northern Iowa guard and MVC Freshman of the Year A.J. Green diminished Bradley’s hopes of reaching the NCAA tournament for its first time since 2006.
Green’s three-pointer gave the Panthers an 18-point lead at 35-17, but the Braves held UNI to one bucket in the next six and a half minutes while Bradley chipped away to make it a four-point game at 38-34.
Bradley’s MVC-record-breaking 18-point comeback win in the MVC Championship merely mimicked its conference season, coming back from an 0-5 start to ultimately finish 9-9 and secure the No. 5 seed at Arch Madness.
The Braves never gave up and remained the hottest team in the conference, winning nine of their last 11 games.
However, although one of the hottest teams entering Arch Madness, the buzz around the Enterprise Center after Friday’s quarterfinal round was the anticipation of a Drake vs. Loyola championship game.
The foretaste of a championship game between the two regular-season co-champions sure was appetizing, but knowing the Bulldogs were without their top-three scorers left people wondering just how long could they last.
So, the expectation, if anything, was for Drake to be burnt out with essentially seven active players in two days – Nick McGlynn played just seven minutes against Illinois State before his knee injury.
Even with the adversity, the Bulldogs were still just a few inches away from a win when Noah Thomas’ half court heave bounced off the backboard.
The Panthers pulled off an upset that was more expected than Bradley’s, but still reinforced the MVC’s mantra of running deep.
Further reinforcing, all three of Bradley’s Arch Madness wins were decided by three points or less.
Naturally, Arch Madness did not disappoint. Not even the championship game, whereas the previous two Arch Madness championship games were decided fairly early with Illinois State losing by 20 and 16 in 2017 and 2018.
This season, however, was a toss-up from the beginning.
The Valley is a grind-it-out conference in which any team truly can win on any given night.
Especially now with Wichita State gone, the MVC is as imbalanced as ever.
Bradley’s championship run is a perfect example for why now-former Southern Illinois head coach Barry Hinson’s famous response of, “It’s the Valley, Scott,” will forever carry weight.