DES MOINES, Iowa — Drake coach Darian DeVries knew the Bradley team that came to Knapp Center on Tuesday night would be a much different squad than the one the Bulldogs throttled a month ago in Peoria.
That message got through to his team. Consequently, Drake is alone in first place for at least one day.
Drake (21-7, 10-5) moved into sole possession of first in the Missouri Valley Conference by one-half game over Loyola and Missouri State with a hard-fought 77-68 victory at Knapp Center before a crowd of 3,061.
The lead changed hands 10 times and it was just a three-point margin with 38 seconds to play. Then the Braves missed their final three shots and the hosts tacked on six more points.
“Bradley is competing so hard,” DeVries said. “The job (BU coach Brian Wardle has) done when you’ve struggled like that to start league play (0-5), for them to stick together and turn that thing around is a real credit to him and his coaching staff and their team. They’re playing as well as anybody in the league. That’s why this was such a huge win for us. We knew this team wasn’t the same team we played in Peoria.”
In several ways, it also didn’t look like the same team that won its previous four games and its last three Valley road contests.
While the Braves shot decently (.475) and mostly defended well, holding Drake to its third-lowest field-goal percentage (.364) of the MVC season, BU was uncharacteristically beaten soundly on the boards 39-31 and fouled too frequently.
Drake shot 36 free throws, sinking 31, by far the highest of each in a Bulldogs’ game this season.
Four of those converted foul shots came at a crucial period in the second half when Nate Kennell and Wardle were whistled for technical fouls within a 63-second period beginning at 7:07. Those infractions turned a 58-57 Bradley lead to a 63-60 deficit from which the Braves never recovered.
“It was a heat of the moment thing,” Wardle said of his technical assessed by veteran ref Randy Heimerman after reacting to a foul called on Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye. “We had a lot to overcome in this game. I was proud of how our guys stayed together and how we fought.”
Fouls plagued BU from the start of the game. Leading scorer Darrell Brown had two personals by 14:46 and played sparingly the rest of the half. Fellow guard starter Luqman Lundy had four fouls by the first minute of the second half.
“That put our rotations out of whack and got (Drake) going,” Wardle said. “We’ve been good at not giving up free throws for a long time.”
Said Childs: “We can’t let it go to the refs’ hands and that’s what we did. We fouled too much and the ball didn’t fall our way.”
DeVries gave credit to both teams when asked about the free-throw disparity.
“I thought Bradley did a really good (defensive) job on us — in the half-court especially,” he said. “They were very aggressive and made things really difficult. We had a hard time getting clean looks and finishing. But I thought our guys did a nice job staying in attack mode and getting to the line. And then knocking ‘em down. You’ve still gotta make ‘em.”
There were still bright spots for Bradley, particularly the play of Childs, whose career-high 24 points came on 11-for-16 shooting. He also snagged nine rebounds, blocked two shots and held Drake top scorer Nick McGlynn to 13 points.
“He hurt us last time,” Childs said of McGlynn,who went for 19 and 11 in Peoria. “I was trying to contain him to the best of my ability. We knew we couldn’t let him beat us.”
DeVries was impressed with Childs’ play on both ends.
“I thought Childs was awesome tonight,” he said. “He really competed and battled hard. He puts you in a lot of iso situations 10-12 feet off the block. If you come double, they have Kennell and Brown spotted up (for 3-pointers). You have to pick your poison because they have a lot of weapons. On the other end, (Childs) did a great job of making McGlynn’s catches tough and making things tough on Nick.”
In the end, it goes down as a loss in the standings for Bradley. But in a week when the Braves knocked off Loyola and Illinois State, this close defeat should serve notice to the rest of the league that BU will be an awfully tough out in the upcoming MVC tournament.
“We let one slip here,” Wardle said. “We thought we could come in and get this win and keep our rhythm going on the road. We’ll bounce back. We’ve gotta bounce back.”
Bradley, which momentarily fell out of the four-way tie for fourth place, dropping to seventh at 7-8, finishes with home games against Evansville (Saturday) and Valparaiso (Wednesday) before the regular-season finale next Saturday at Loyola.
The goal remains to finish in the top six and avoid the Thursday night play-in round of the tournament.
“We want to get these three games, finish strong and go into the conference tournament and get hot,” Childs said.
They just proved they can win four in a row in the league. At St. Louis, they’ll only have to win three.
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davereynolds2.