PEORIA — After the first few minutes of Saturday’s game at Missouri State, it became a decidedly dismal day for Bradley basketball.
The Braves led early 8-4, but then disappeared into a rabbit hole for the next 14 minutes, going without a field goal, missing 13 shots in a row and scoring just one point to the host’s 24.
In the end, Bradley managed its lowest-scoring effort since Brian Wardle’s first BU team four years ago scored 35 at Evansville and fell 55-37.
Nevertheless, the mood was mostly understanding and upbeat at The Bullpen Bar & Grill, the official watch party host for BU hoops.
A couple dozen Bradley fans showed up adorned in BU red for beer and basketball on the frigid, snowy afternoon. But as the Braves’ missed shots mounted, the supporters’ attention became more focused on brews than bravado.
Still, these are not the people calling for Wardle’s job on the BU message boards prior to this week’s wins over Southern Illinois and Illinois State.
These loyalists realize that — despite the Braves’ shortcomings the past two months — Wardle has built a strong culture, has shown steady improvement on the court until the recent difficulties and owns a roster of good students and citizens.
Also, Wardle has four years left on his contract after this one. Bradley has paid its last three coaches not to coach. I would think the school doesn’t want to go down that road again.
All that said, the Bradley faithful on hand offered a variety of thoughts on their favorite college team’s current strengths and weaknesses.
“It’s like they’re playing golf,” said Tom Wieser of Peoria. “Wardle has put together a good team. But it’s all between the ears with them.”
One of his viewing buddies, Peorian Chris Pasold, agreed.
“They definitely have the yips,” he said. “They get in their own way. They get discouraged and it affects them on the other end.”
Ron Janik of East Peoria offered this critique.
“Last game (the 85-68 rout of Illinois State) was the team we saw in the first few weeks,” he said. “My sense is they have trouble holding their confidence and concentration. I have confidence in the coach. The players have to learn to have confidence in themselves. You can read their (discouraged) body language on the TV screen.”
Longtime fan Steve Wicker and his 13-year-old son, Owen, also came to watch the Braves.
Just before game time, the elder Wicker was hopeful the Illinois State win could help the Braves salvage the 0-5 hole they dug to start the Valley season.
“The new lineup is working well,” he said. “Luuk (van Bree) stretches the defense and gives (Elijah) Childs room to operate inside. It would be good if we could get to 9-9 (in the MVC) and stay out of Thursday (play-in round).”
But in the game’s waning moments, Wicker was looking ahead much further.
“We need to get more scoring next year,” he said.
Front and center at the bar was the most positive table of fans — Janis Wilkins, Bruce Castor, Debbie Mullen and Walt Lied. They’re season-ticket holders and attend every home game. When the Braves are on the road, they meet at The Bullpen to cheer them on.
“We love coming here,” Wilkins said. “It’s the next best thing to being at the game.”
Mullen, in particular, showed a perpetual optimism where Bradley was concerned. Before the game, she praised the team’s modest two-game winning streak as an indicator of big things to come.
“We’re coming back around now,” she said. “We’re playing more aggressively and playing more like a team again.”
Later, when the Braves trailed by 20, Mullen was still smiling.
“They got a little rattled today, and Missouri State is on a roll,” she said. “But they’ll be back.”
There’s not much time for Bradley to refocus, though. Another stiff road test awaits on Wednesday when the Braves travel to Evansville hoping to recapture that winning mojo from four days ago.
The charter flight ride home was undoubtedly a quiet one.
Just before boarding the plane, Brian Wardle returned my phone call.
Just as he did on his postgame radio show, Wardle repeated the mantra “We have to compete at a higher level and execute better,” to most every question.
Except for one. When asked if anybody played well, Wardle said not really.
Then he paused and added, “Luqman Lundy didn’t play great, but he brought a ton of energy and effort. Our effort was fine; it was just execution.”
It was the kind of message that will resonate with the Bradley diehards. And bring them back to The Bullpen on Wednesday in hopes of a better outcome.
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at davereynolds2.