Drake scored the first 12 points of the game and never relinquished the lead as the Bulldogs overwhelmed Bradley in a 65-49 victory in the opening round of the State Farm Missouri Valley Conference Championship in St. Louis on Thursday night.
The Braves closed the gap to single digits just twice in the second half, and Drake earned its second win in the conference tournament in the last four years. The Bulldogs move on to the quarterfinals and will face No. 24 Creighton at 6 p.m. on Friday. The Bluejays are the second seed in the tournament.
Sophomore Rayvonte Rice made 7-of-13 shots to lead all scorers with 18 points. Junior Ben Simons struggled from the arc for most of the game, but he nailed two 3-pointers in the last three minutes to close out the win. Simons finished with 16 points.
The Bulldogs dominated play inside, outscoring Bradley 40-22 in the paint. The Braves shot just 34 percent for the game while Drake connected on 45.5 percent of its shots.
“The strength of their basketball team is getting in the paint, so we wanted to keep it tight, stay in our gaps and force them to shoot it from outside,” head coach Mark Phelps said.
Drake set the tone right from the start. Rice scored the first five points, and the Bulldogs jumped out to a 20-7 lead in the first 10 minutes of the first half.
Bradley implemented a zone defense and responded with a 6-0 run to pull within seven points. But that was the closest the Braves got on a night that was all Drake.
The highlight of the game came with 3:22 left in the first half. With the Bulldogs up 27-15, Phelps called a time out to draw up a set play to exploit Bradley’s zone defense. Drake executed a solid back screen to free up Rice, and Simons fed him a perfect lob. Rice slammed the alley-oop, and the Bulldog fans at the Scottrade Center erupted.
“I thought Rayvonte (Rice) did a really good job of getting in the paint,” Phelps said. “He fills the stat sheet. When he’s at his best, he is getting in the paint. We need him to use his physicality and explosiveness in the paint.”
Drake led 35-25 at the half. The Braves scored the first bucket of the second half to cut the lead to eight, but Simons nailed a trey to push the lead back to double digits. Another basket by the Braves’ Jordan Prosser brought the lead back to nine, and that would be the closest that Bradley would get. The Bulldogs once again stretched the lead to double digits and never looked back.
Walt Lemon, Jr. led Bradley with 16 points. Redshirt junior Jordan Clarke led Drake with nine rebounds.
Last season, the Braves eliminated Drake 63-48 in the same play-in game (Bradley as the No. 10 seed, Drake as the No. 7 seed). The Bulldogs got revenge this season.
The Bulldogs have lost twice to Creighton this season, but senior Kurt Alexander said that the team is ready to take on the next challenge.
“We know we have a great task ahead of us,” Alexander said. “We have to bring a lot of energy and our thinking caps.”