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