January 5, 2021 

MVC check-in: How Bradley bounced back to earn key split in opening series

A tale of two second halves, and early benefits of the back-to-back schedule

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Bradley guard Gabi Haack shoots against Quincy on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020 at Renaissance Coliseum in Peoria, Ill. (Photo: Bradley Athletics)

Playing Drake on the road is a difficult task for any Missouri Valley Conference opponent, and Bradley knows that all too well. Going into their opening series in Des Moines over New Year’s weekend, the Braves hadn’t won at the Knapp Center since 2010; their most recent trip last February ended in a 13-point loss even after defeating the Bulldogs at home earlier in the season.

The first weekend of 2021 also marked the first time Valley teams played back-to-back single-site conference games, per the new scheduling format, in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Bradley got off to a less-than-ideal start, falling to Drake by 15 points on Friday, and leaving the team wondering how it could bounce back against a historically tough opponent, in a place that is historically difficult to play, less than 24 hours later.

But head coach Andrea Gorski didn’t have to wonder for long how Squad 46 would respond, because the effort was evident as soon as they got back to their hotel that evening.

“No one was pointing fingers or anything, and it was like, ‘Okay, we gotta get better,’ and everyone’s asking questions,” Gorski said. “I never had so many questions asked in a film session before.”

Bradley’s downfall in the first game was a poor shooting performance combined with a disastrous second half, won by Drake 40-28. The Braves shot 28.8% overall and 17.9% from 3-point range, an area where they normally excel. Tatum Koenig was the only player to make more than one from distance, while 3-point ace Gabi Haack went 1-9.

“I just thought that we were not disciplined enough on offense, especially in the second half,” Gorski said. “Just felt like we didn’t work the ball enough, rushed shots … a lot of times we hit those shots, but today we didn’t.”

It’s fair to say Bradley took something away from those productive film sessions, because at noon the next day, it came back and defeated Drake 80-75 thanks to a dream second half. Kicked off by a 35-point third quarter, the Braves earned the split by virtue of a much-improved 45.8% shooting mark and by keeping the Bulldogs off the offensive glass. They also made 10 triples.

While conference preseason player of the year Lasha Petree got things started for Bradley in the first half, amassing 19 of her 28 points in the opening two frames, three second-quarter fouls kept her from being fully productive in the second half. That’s where Haack stepped in, with all four of her 3-point makes coming in the third and fourth quarters.

“We knew if [Haack] just hit one 3, the floodgates would open, and that’s exactly what happened,” Gorski said. “She was on fire from there.”

Picked to finish second in the Valley, the Braves have struggled staying consistent early on, not having won (but to be fair, also not having lost) two games in a row yet this season. Their next Valley opponent, Southern Illinois, swept its opening series against Evansville, offering some much-needed momentum as it prepares to visit Bradley this weekend.

But though it has yet to win two in a row — and Gorski acknowledged over the summer that winning is a not-insignificant part of how she measures the team’s success — the takeaways from this series have to be immense. Now that Bradley has proven it can quickly turn around a tough loss and pull off a big win, and on the road, no less, more wins seem likely to follow.

“It’s not easy to play here at Drake; they have a great record at home,” Gorski said. “It’s our first time playing back-to-back games. I was really proud of our team, how we handled everything this weekend.”

Around the Valley

  • After a near-complete weekend of conference play, two teams are 2-0, four are 1-1 and two are 0-2. Missouri State and Valparaiso sat out their respective opening series due to COVID-19 protocols, but are scheduled to play this weekend.

  • The two undefeated teams, UNI and Southern Illinois, also had the Valley’s player and newcomer of the week, respectively, in the Panthers’ Bre Gunnels and the Salukis’ Adrianna Katcher. Gunnels averaged 16.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in UNI’s opening series, while Katcher opened her Valley career with a 14-rebound effort in SIU’s first game and a season-best 11 points in its second.

  • Southern Illinois’ Jan. 1 win was its eighth straight conference-opening win, the best such streak in the Valley. Meanwhile, Drake extended its own opening-win streak to five games, and Missouri State can reach a four-game streak with a win on Friday.

  • Not only was Bradley’s weekend win its first over Drake since 2010, it was its first win in the state of Iowa (including UNI) in its last 23 tries.

  • The first women’s NET rankings — the successor of the RPI — were released Monday, and as a conference, the Valley ranked eighth in the nation. Missouri State (27), Illinois State (51), UNI (72) and Drake (84) all placed in the top 100.

See complete results from the Valley’s recent games here.

Two to watch

Subject to change. All times CT; records are in Valley play. The complete schedule can be found at the link above.

Both defending-champion Missouri State and Valparaiso are slated to begin their Valley seasons this weekend, so let’s take a look at their respective opening series:

  • UNI (2-0) at Valparaiso (0-0), Jan. 7 and 8, both 6 p.m. (ESPN+)

It’s not quite fair to say that Valpo was unstoppable before going on pause, but it certainly had some of its most impactful wins in program history, including a 2-1 road showing against Big Ten teams. But this is the Valley, where UNI has a quick head start spearheaded by a wealth of talent — young as it may be — both in the starting five and off the bench. This pair of teams have below-average scoring and defense relative to the rest of the conference, but the obvious goal for the Crusaders will be to try to stifle UNI’s 3-point shooting, a key part of its offense.

  • Loyola (1-1) at Missouri State (0-0), Jan. 8 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 9 at 5 p.m. (ESPN3)

The best defensive team in the Valley, Missouri State allows opponents to score so little that Loyola and its conference 8th-best offense could have some real trouble breaking through. But the Ramblers always seem to have some trick up their sleeves — case in point, when these teams opened Valley play in Chicago last season, and the Lady Bears needed overtime to win. Even now, with a handful of key Loyola players having graduated or transferred, the Ramblers proved their mettle in a close loss at No. 24 DePaul earlier this season. They also came back from a big opening loss to split their recent series with Indiana State, showing similar early mastery of the back-to-back schedule that Bradley did. Still, the Lady Bears are 14-1 in the overall series, with that one loss coming in the teams’ first-ever meeting in 2014.

Edit 1/7/21: This series has been postponed due to ongoing COVID-19 protocols at Missouri State.

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