By DRAKE LOHSE
All week long, the Bulldogs have been locked in a dance with the top spot in the MVC Conference.
It started Tuesday night. Drake hosted Bradley at the Knapp Center, where the Bulldogs have posted a 12-2 record on the season. Their three-game winning streak, hot off the loss to Loyola back on Feb. 5, helped propel them to a three-way tie for No. 1 in the Missouri Valley with Loyola and Missouri State.
Bradley wasn’t intimidated and refused to go down easy. The Braves spread the ball at a torpedo’s pace, and had Drake on their heels early. The Bulldogs spent the better part of the opening half playing catch-up with Bradley’s high powered offensive.
D.J. Wilkins put up seven quick points to spark an 11-2 Drake run as time waned in the first period. Capitalizing on the momentum, Drake took a convincing 42-36 lead into the locker room at the half.
Loyola. Missouri State. Drake. Those are the three teams that were vying for control of the MVC Tuesday night. With an 8-8 conference record, Bradley had nothing to lose in Des Moines.
The Braves came out firing in the second half. They opened with a 17-9 run. Bradley looked smooth, delivering on 7-for-10 from the floor to Drake’s abysmal 4-for-13. The Braves wrestled away a 55-53 lead at the under 12 media timeout.
But in a game that featured 10 lead changes and 11 ties, nothing was certain. Senior standout Nick McGlynn hit an easy jumper from the block to bring the Bulldogs within one. The bucket sent the Bulldogs off on a tear. With just under five minutes, Drake held on desperately to a 70-65 lead.
The action wasn’t over. Bradley countered with a run of its own, inspired by forward Elijah Child’s thunderous dunk off the fast break. The Braves found themselves back within three, and only 38 seconds remained.
But Garrett Sturtz refused, downright refused, to let his Bulldogs fall. The ferocious first-year from Newton shattered a feisty Braves full-court press, sending a long-range missile down court for Nick McGlynn. McGlynn buried the easy, crowd-pleasing dunk, and gave Drake a comfortable five point lead.
On the ensuing possession, the 6’3” Sturtz muscled his way up over 7’1” Elijah Childs for the game clinching rebound. The buzzer sounded on a 77-68 Bulldog lead, and Drake found itself in sole possession of the number one position in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Sturtz’s late-game contributions were telling of a team effort Tuesday night. The Bulldogs needed all hands on deck for an uptempo slug fest. Anthony Murphy and Des Moines favorite headband tied his career high with 12 points, and senior Brady Ellingson continued his greatest hits tour with 17 points and two threes.
“We did a nice job of being in attack mode and forcing the issue,” Ellingson said. “We were able to get to the free throw line and that was able to keep us in the game while our offense sputtered.”
But the tango for first place was far from over. Drake’s first place glory was short lived. A Wednesday night Missouri State loss provided hope, but Loyola downed Southern Illinois the same day. The Bulldogs went from tied, on top, to tied again within 24 hours.
Missouri State redeemed itself with a win on Saturday, and once again, the battle for the top seed in the MVC was a three way headlock. Drake departed for Illinois State with first place ambitions and statistics on their side. The Redbirds dropped Drake at home the last time the two met, but the Bulldogs have only lost twice to the same opponent once this season.
Nick McGlynn and Tramell Murphy combined for 31, but woeful shooting from the perimeter (26 percent) sent the Bulldogs packing, at the business end of a 67-60 loss.
Drake was unable to shake the Redbirds, but Loyola fell to Southern Illinois Sunday night. At the end of a whirlwind week, the Bulldogs were right back where they started— knotted three ways for control of the MVC.
“It came down the wire again,” Drake head coach Darian DeVries said. “We weren’t quite ourselves in the first half, but came back in the second half, competed hard and did a nice job getting the game even. Down the stretch, we weren’t able to convert on some opportunities and they had some guys make some big plays.”
Drake looks to break the three-way tie once again on Wednesday, Feb. 27 when they play host to Indiana State at 7 p.m.