■ Bradley tops Drake to ad­vance to the Mis­souri Val­ley Con­fer­ence fi­nal, where it will face Val­paraiso, which won the other semi­fi­nal Satur­day in St. Louis.

Bradley will go against Val­paraiso for a spot in the NCAA tour­na­ment

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - By Shan­non Ryan

ST. LOUIS — Bradley was fac­ing an up­set-minded op­po­nent in a topsy-turvy Mis­souri Val­ley Con­fer­ence Tour­na­ment that al­ready had seen the top three seeds elim­i­nated a day ear­lier.

Val­paraiso, on the heels of caus­ing one of those up­sets, was try­ing to knock off an­other higher-seeded op­po­nent.

Both ac­com­plished their goals Satur­day at the En­ter­prise Center, ad­vanc­ing to the cham­pi­onship game at 1 p.m. Sun­day (CBS-2).

No. 4 seed Bradley will play in its sec­ond straight tour­na­ment fi­nal for the first time in school his­tory af­ter hold­ing off No. 8 seed Drake 76-66 in the first semi­fi­nal.

The Cru­saders de­feated No. 6 Mis­souri State 89-82 in the sec­ond semi to be­come the first play-in team and first No. 7 seed to ad­vance to the tour­na­ment cham­pi­onship game. A night ear­lier, Valpo knocked off No. 2 Loy­ola 74-73 in over­time.

When Drake cut a 13-point deficit to three about mid­way through the sec­ond half, the Braves (21-11) would have been jus­ti­fied dur­ing an en­su­ing time­out to won­der: Are we next?

“That’s when we were the calmest prob­a­bly of the game,” Bradley coach Brian War­dle said.

His team an­swered with a 7-0 run that put the game out of reach.

Their re­fusal to panic dur­ing that crit­i­cal time­out ex­plains the Braves’ postgame re­ac­tions. Cel­e­bra­tory, for sure, but with an ex­pec­ta­tion that it was sup­posed to play out this way.

“This is where we want to be,” said Nate Ken­nell, a se­nior from the Peoria area. “Now that we’re back, it even makes it bet­ter. It’s all the hard work and prepa­ra­tion we put in makes these mo­ments spe­cial. We’re go­ing to make the most of it.”

Last sea­son, Bradley earned its first NCAA Tour­na­ment since 2006, los­ing in the first round to Michi­gan State.

The Braves are keen on get­ting back. Drake (20-14) had ousted top seed North­ern Iowa on Fri­day and ap­peared to have some fight left.

The Bull­dogs chewed into a 52-39 Bradley lead with a 10-0 run in which the Braves en­dured al­most four score­less min­utes. Drake guard Ro­man Penn hit a 3-pointer with 11:32 re­main­ing to cap the run, rais­ing his hands in cel­e­bra­tion to­ward Drake fans.

Bradley called a crit­i­cal time­out. “We knew we had to come out and ex­e­cute that next pos­ses­sion (and) buckle down de­fen­sively,” War­dle said. “We jut made some mis­takes dur­ing that swing. They made some tough shots.”

In less than four min­utes, Bradley re­claimed the 10-point lead.

Se­nior guard Dar­rell Brown scored 19 of his game-high 25 points in the first half, lead­ing five Bradley play­ers in dou­ble dig­its. The Braves shot 49%.

Liam Rob­bins had 19 points and 12 re­bounds be­fore foul­ing out in the fi­nal min­utes, and Penn scored 17 for Drake.

For Bradley, re­turn­ing to the cham­pi­onship game is a sig­na­ture mo­ment for the program.

“It’s what we worked so hard for,” War­dle said. “It’s a spe­cial feel­ing. But it kind of was the plan.”

Mean­while, Val­paraiso led by 12 points with 1:08 re­main­ing, but Mis­souri State pulled within 85-82 with 21 sec­onds left.

The Cru­saders (19-15) played tight de­fense to keep the Bears (16-17) from get­ting a de­cent look.

Javon Free­man-Lib­erty, the nephew of for­mer Illi­nois star Mar­cus Lib­erty, scored 29 points for Valpo, which made 9 of 24 3-point­ers.

“Re­ally proud of the fight and the ef­fort to play three games in three days,” coach Matt Lot­tich said. “From where we were two years ago when we en­tered this league, the 10 seed los­ing on the first day, to now, the program’s go­ing in the right di­rec­tion.”

JEFF ROBER­SON/AP

Bradley’s Dar­rell Brown passes dur­ing the MVC Tour­na­ment semis Satur­day in St. Louis.

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