The phrase "Will it play in Peoria?" traces its roots to the days of Vaudeville. Performers believed the inhabitants of this city on the banks of the Illinois River to be the ultimate "focus group": far enough from the East Coast that most of the latest trends hadn't reached them yet but close enough to Chicago so some of them had, small enough to ensure the residents had some sort of common rural sensibilities but big enough that they weren't total bumpkinish rubes. Advertisers, entertainers, and politicians still see the people of Peoria, nestled in the heart of the state in the heart of the country, to be the quintessential Americans. If a message could be accepted here, if it "played" here, it would play anywhere.
The Bradley Braves have been playing in Peoria since 1903. With 1,568 total wins and eight NCAA tournament appearances, the city has always embraced the Braves.
The most recent of the eight appearances in the Big Show came in 2006, when the Braves secured an at-large 13-seed and pulled off the 4 and 5 upsets over Kansas and Pittsburgh respectively to reach the Sweet 16. They were then ushered off the stage by the 1-seed, Memphis. Despite consistently winning 20-plus games in each of the next three seasons, the Braves achieved the "reverse cycle" of postseason play: 2007 in the NIT, 2008 in the CBI, and 2009 in the CIT. The Peoria audience started to get restless.
The slide continued in 2009-10 with a 16-15 record, and after winning only 12 games (only 4 in the Valley) in 2010-11, the hook finally came for Bradley's alumni head coach Jim Les. The announcement of his firing came just minutes after the end of the Missouri Valley tournament, presumably to allow the tournament itself to keep the attention of the assembled MVC fans and media. Enter Geno Ford, stage left. As Kyle and other Bradley recappers have mentioned, Bradley basketball is a family show. Being a Braves fan is passed along the generations like curly hair or blue eyes. I saw this clearly for myself in the upper reaches of the vertigo-inducing stands at Carver Arena. In front of me sat a father and early-teenaged son in matching black peacoats. Behind me sat three generations: grandfather, father, and a boy of 7 or so wearing a John Deere t-shirt who let out a big "GO BRADLEY!" as the tip sailed into the air. The antagonists for tonight's performance were the Wofford Terriers, back-to-back defending Southern Conference champs. They knew their role, and played it well.
The game started off rather evenly, with Bradley able to cut to the basket with ease. Taylor Brown, sporting his trademark glasses, scored on a nice reverse play and a solid, but not quite OMG, dunx. Anthony Thompson added a nice STUF! dunk as well. These plays all prompted hi-fives from the peacoat-clad duo in front of me.
But for each Bradley 2-pointer, Wofford would answer with 3-pointers. Kevin Giltner became the lead character of the night by making 5 superhoops as part of his game-high and now-career-high 29 points. The father sitting behind me would shout "Please guard him!" a little louder after each one of those threes fell.
The Terrier lead held around eight or so for most of the game, but the heroes of our show still had one last charge in them for the final act.
After Wofford's Karl Cochran made a three-pointer to give for a 68-59 lead with two minutes left, Bradley's last gasp began. Bradley scored the next seven points thanks to a Walt Lemon, Jr. layup, a Brown three and two free-throws. Wofford's lead was now just two points with one minute remaining.
The Carver Arena crowd sensed they were watching a comeback story in progress, but happy endings are a lot tougher to come by in our game. Wofford turned the ball over twice in the final minute of the game, but neither Dyricus Simms-Edwards or Brown were able to cash in those turnovers for points. After Brown's miss, Wofford's Brad Loesing snagged the rebound and calmly made two free throws with 4.7 seconds left to ensure the "bad guys" would win this game.
After the curtain fell, one of the ushers sent each fan on their way with a wish of a happy Thanksgiving. It seemed fitting; a wish for a good holiday, one where family gathers just as families had done here tonight. That plays well in Peoria. I hope it plays well wherever you are, too.
Happy Thanksgiving, Hoops Nation.
WOFFORD 70, at BRADLEY 66 11/22/2011
WOFFORD 2-2 (0-0) -- K. Giltner 11-17 2-4 29; B. Loesing 3-10 2-2 9; L. Skinner 0-2 0-1 0; K. Cochran 4-16 0-0 12; D. Crowell 6-9 0-3 12; D. Rinksalis 2-3 0-0 4; J. Swinton 0-1 0-0 0; A. Smith 2-3 0-0 4. Totals 28-61 4-10 70. BRADLEY 3-1 (0-0) -- T. Brown 5-14 4-4 16; W. Lemon Jr 5-11 4-10 14; D. Simms-Edwards 8-16 4-6 22; J. Prosser 0-8 2-2 2; J. Eastman 3-7 0-0 6; C. Woods 0-2 0-0 0; A. Thompson 3-4 0-0 6; S. Shayok 0-0 0-0 0; J. Crawford 0-0 0-0 0; M. Knezevic 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-62 14-22 66.
Three-point goals: WOFF 10-23 (K. Giltner 5-8; B. Loesing 1-4; K. Cochran 4-11), BRAD 4-17 (T. Brown 2-6; J. Eastman 0-3; C. Woods 0-1; D. Simms-Edwards 2-6; W. Lemon 0-1); Rebounds: WOFF 44 (D. Crowell 10), BRAD 36 (T. Brown 11); Assists: WOFF 16 (B. Loesing 8), BRAD 13 (T. Brown 4); Total Fouls -- WOFF 19, BRAD 15; Fouled Out: WOFF-None; BRAD-None.