Sweet 16: Braves’ NCAA run
Big Dance fever
Winters in Peoria always capture a warm spot in my heart. Never mind the biting cold; inside Carver Arena the action heats up when the Bradley Braves charge onto the gleaming hardwood. Some 10,000 fans brave the elements each game night, drawn to their version of paradise: another opportunity to cheer for their team.
This year, fans reveled in an exceptionally thrilling season’s end when “March Madness” became a personal experience. Our Braves were invited to the NCAA tournament— the “Big Dance.” The frenzy, the excitement, the magic of it all became reality because our team was going.
On Selection Sunday, fans anxiously awaited Bradley’s fate. Seeded #13…against #4 Kansas...at Auburn Hills, Bradley was in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years! My son Andy Ridgeway ’05 and I started making plans to attend. We were disappointed that Bradley hadn’t been seeded higher, but there was nothing unlucky about #13—whether you’re talking about our seed or about sophomore center Patrick O’Bryant, whose jersey sported the same number.
Bradley’s campus was quiet with pockets of frenzy as the team prepared for the tournament. Students and faculty were gone for spring break, but the Field House was buzzing with ticket sales and the bookstore was humming with T-shirt sales. About 150 enthusiastic fans gathered to wish the team well as they left the Field House for the airport. Each player weaved his way through the crowd, shaking hands with each fan and thanking all for supporting them. It was a “class act” expression of gratitude fans would see repeatedly as the team danced its way into the Sweet 16.
Jamming the Jayhawks
Inside the Palace at Auburn Hills, home of the Detroit Pistons, bright blue NCAA banners listed Bradley with the likes of Kansas, Iowa, Kent State, Pittsburgh, and fellow Valley team Southern Illinois. Bradley’s name and the Braves logo also rippled along the electronic banner that circled the arena. Bradley was in the fabled NCAA tournament, and we were among the fortunate Bradley loyal witnessing it in person!
It may have been St. Patrick’s Day, but in the stands, Bradley red overtook kelly green as the color of the day. We were decked out in our Bradley gear, dedicated to our team no matter what the outcome. I have never before experienced the camaraderie we shared at that game. We were all thrilled to be there, and even though we had not met before, we felt as though we were in the midst of a huge reunion. Our team was on fire, and so were we. To my right were John Johnson of Peoria and his 13-year-old son, Trevor. Johnson, a Bradley fan for 45 years, still treasures his autograph from Chet Walker ‘62. Sharing his love for Bradley basketball is important to Johnson, who took Trevor to several road games this year, including all three NCAA games. To Andy’s left was Jason Moderi ’96 of Naperville. As the game began, Moderi explained his “segment” approach to watching the game. He breaks down the 40 minutes of playing time into the 10 four-minute officials’ time-outs and keeps track of whether Bradley has won each of the segments. He says winning the second segment of each half is the determining factor in whether or not Bradley wins the game.
A victory over Kansas seemed daunting. Bradley pulled ahead, 3-2. Trevor said, “No one can say we were never ahead.” That proved to be a non-issue. “BU” became our mantra. We shared high fives and amazed looks as we relished each moment. Will Franklin’s “in-your-face” bank shot at the halftime buzzer gave us a 10-point lead going into the second half. We might really win!
Pitted against the Panthers
The impossible seemed possible on Sunday at what has become known as the Brad-Pitt game. Our team was as endearing as any movie star you could name. They again proved their drive and determination were as strong as anyone’s, no matter what college was on the jersey.
We had front-row seats two sections over from the mass of Bradley fans. Most of those around us were Detroit area residents who came for the love of the game. “Where is Bradley University?” was a common question that would be posed many times in the coming week. We had a great vantage point to watch not only the game, but the wide red stripe of fans that ran from the floor to the upper section of the Palace. Braves fans stood at the beginning of the game, a Bradley tradition in which fans stand until the opposing team scores. When Pitt finally scored about four minutes into the game, there was an unsaid consensus among Bradley fans. They would remain standing, and cheering, and willing their beloved Braves to a win. It was as if the fans and players had a covenant—the fans must stand, the Braves must win. Throughout the entire game, fans in Bradley red remained standing—and vehemently cheering.
Bradley claimed a 72-66 victory, and elation erupted when the team parted its own red sea of fans and ran into the stands. Security guards were aghast, but they understood. Fans and players had bonded; this was the reward. Bradley was in the elusive NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time since 1955.