PEORIA, Ill. -- Thanks to some help from junior forward Theron Wilson (Topeka, Kan./Highland Park H.S.), Bradley senior point guard Daniel Ruffin (Peoria, Ill./Peoria H.S.) made his return to action a triumphant one by contributing 11 points and two assists in 24 minutes off the bench and leading the Braves (10-10, 3-5 MVC) to a 76-75 Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball victory versus Interstate 74 rival Illinois State (14-5, 6-2 MVC) Wednesday night at Carver Arena.
Playing in front of the third-largest home crowd (11,421) in Bradley Basketball history, Bradley extended its winning streak in the series to six games, while surviving its third consecutive one-point decision. Coming on the heels of a 69-68 loss a week ago to Valley leading Drake and a 77-76 win Saturday versus Evansville, a quick review of the Bradley record book did not reveal a previous occurrence of three straight one-point decisions in Bradley’s 104-year men’s basketball history.
Wilson followed up his career-best 28-point performance Saturday versus Evansville by scoring a game-high 20 points off the bench Wednesday night versus the Redbirds. His free throw with 8.0 seconds remaining broke the game’s 11th tie, and after Illinois State’s Osiris Eldridge drove the length of the floor and put up a wild shot from the baseline, followed by a Dinma Odiakosa tip, the 6-foot-5 Wilson batted the rebound out to midcourt to end the game.
Ruffin initially was diagnosed with an abdominal strain the week leading up to Bradley’s Dec. 11 game at Wright State, then after re-aggravating the injury during the Dec. 22 game versus VCU, he underwent surgery to repair a sports hernia Dec. 28. The Braves lost six straight after winning at Wright State and managed only a 2-5 record in Ruffin’s absence, but Bradley now has won three of its last four. The Braves outscored Illinois State by three points, 50-47, during Ruffin's 24 minutes.
Wilson led four Braves in double figures offensively as sophomore guard Andrew Warren scored 17 points and senior guard Jeremy Crouch chipped in with 12, leaving him 10 points shy of 1,000 in his career. Illinois State senior point guard Boo Richardson paced four Redbirds in double-figures with 17 points. Dom Johnson added 15, Eldridge 11 and Emmanuel Holloway 10.
Illinois State entered the game leading The Valley in 3-point field goal percentage defense, allowing the opposition to shoot just 29.8 percent from behind the arc while surrendering just 4.9 treys per game. The Redbirds defense did not deter the Braves, however, as Bradley drained 13-of-28 (.464) attempts from behind the 3-point line. ISU was just 5-of-19 (.263) from 3-point range. Wilson followed up his surprising 4-for-5 long-range effort Saturday against Evansville by hitting 5-of-7 Wednesday night against the Redbirds.
Wednesday’s clash ended with 11 ties and 11 lead changes. The Redbirds grabbed a game-high eight-point lead, 11-3, in the game’s opening minutes, then snared a 54-47 advantage following an Eldridge 3-pointer with 13:05 left in the game. Ruffin ignited an 8-0 Bradley run, however, by draining a deep 3-pointer with 12:58 to go. Crouch capped the run by skinking 1-of-2 free throws with 11:02 left following a technical foul on Richardson. The game featured five technical fouls, three on Illinois State and two against the Braves.
It appeared Bradley’s second technical, issued to Matt Salley with 4:01 remaining could prove costly. Bradley had built a 72-66 lead on Wilson’s fifth trey with 4:33 left, but Salley was called four his fourth personal by fouling Richardson on his drive to the basket, then was hit with a technical after the play. Johnson sank the two technical free throws and Richardson drained the two resulting from the shooting foul to start a 7-0 Illinois State run that gave the Redbirds a 73-72 advantage with 2:32 left.
Wilson created the 11th lead change with 1:55 left by making two charity shots for a 74-73 Bradley lead. Ruffin hit 1-of-2 free throws for a 75-73 advantage with 1:15 left, but Richardson converted a tough drive down the lane to knot the score at 75-75 with 47 seconds left. Ruffin forced a tough 3-point shot to beat the shot clock on Bradley’s ensuing possession, but when Richardson fell to the ground after skying for the rebound he was called for travelling, giving the Braves an opportunity for the last possession with 12.5 seconds to go and setting the stage for Wilson’s deciding free throw.
NOTE: Illinois State’s leading rebounder and The Valley’s most accurate shooter from the field, senior forward Anthony Slack, injured his right shoulder when he ran into the basket standard with 6:14 left in the first half. He was diagnosed with a deep contusion and did not return to the game.