Sunday, March 8, 2020

Rosenberg's recap of Bradley's second straight MVC tournament title

By: Jeremy Rosenberg
Twitter: @CSportsOverload

MVC Championship: (4) Bradley vs. (7) Valparaiso

Pre-game thoughts:

            The 2019-2020 Missouri Valley season draws to a close today, with the Bradley Braves (22-11) taking on the Valparaiso Crusaders (19-15) for the MVC Arch Madness championship and the Valley’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. No higher seeded power conference team will take the Valley champion lightly— the winner of Arch Madness is traditionally an upset waiting to happen.

            Bradley looks to repeat as champion, and to improve on last year’s first-round NCAA exit. Senior point guard Darrell Brown will be the fuel for the Braves’ offensive attack. Junior Elijah Childs will need to be stopping in the mid-range game, and provide a second scoring option. Koch Bar had an outstanding game yesterday, but his presence might be mitigated by Valpo stretching the floor. Finally, look for either Nate Kennell or Ville Tahvanainen from three-point range provide needed outside shooting punch.

            Valpo is seeking its first ever MVC title since joining the conference in 2017. The Crusaders have been Valley bottom feeders, but with a win today can blow up that perception and show that they truly belong. Javon Freeman-Liberty can play with anyone, anytime, if he is in top form, Valpo will hang around. Freshman Donovan Clay has had a breakout tournament, his slashing ability vs. Childs will be a game-within-the-game highlight. Finally, Valpo’s two seniors, Ryan Fazekas and John Kiser are the x-factors. If one or both get hot from three, Valpo could take the title.

            Bradley 80, Valparaiso 66

            Valpo and Bradley shook off the nerves and started strong, trading buckets, and the anticipated battle between Javon Freeman-Liberty and Darrell Brown was joined. Brown hit an early three and created shots for his teammates. Freeman-Liberty confidentially handled the ball, driving to the hoop, or stepping back to knock down a three.

            Bradley senior Nate Kennell also came out strong, hitting an open three and putting 5 points on the board early. Back and forth the two teams went, evenly matched in the first half. Bradley would pull ahead, then Valpo. At halftime, the Crusaders held a slim 38-36 lead.

            Valpo came out of the locker room on a run, and expanded their lead to five points, led by senior John Kiser and aggressive play off the bench by Daniel Sackey. At no time up to this point did Valpo show any effects of having to play an extra game.

            As the game went on, what wore Valpo down was the size and talent of Bradley. For the game, the Braves outrebounded the Crusaders 38-30, and as the game entered the final stretch, Bradley was hitting their shots, and Valpo went cold— culminating in a 17-2 run for the Braves that put them up by 13 points with 2:25 left in the game.

            An admirable run by Valparaiso fell short, but not before playing in their first MVC title game, being the first team to play on Thursday night to make the finals, and not before gaining the full respect of their conference peers. As long as Freeman-Liberty and Clay are both back next season, Valpo will be a force to be reckoned with in the Valley.

            Bradley head coach Brain Wardle has done an outstanding job, leading the Braves to back-to-back NCAA tournament bids. Last year, as a 15 seed, Bradley put up a sprinted effort against Michigan State. This year’s team has more of the look of a 12 or 13 seed, very dangerous if Brown and Childs are both clicking in the same game. Koch Bar and Ari Boya can provide inside size to match a bigger team. The question for a Bradley upset will lay with consistency of their two big scorers, and whether or not Nate Kennell or Ville Tahvanainen can get hot beyond the arc.

            Another Arch Madness is in the books. The Valley puts on a great show every year, and the fans represent in the ‘Lou. It almost has a college bowl game feel about it. Always a fun event, I hope to be back next year.
            Goodbye from St. Louis!