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Summer 2006 • Volume 12, Issue 3

Sweet 16: Braves’ NCAA run

One shining moment

by Justin Phelps ‘05

A few weeks after Bradley’s Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament, senior Marcellus Sommerville considered his most memorable moment.

The team was in a locker room at the Palace of Auburn Hills after its first practice. Marcus Pollard ‘94 was talking.

“He said he reads a story to his son every night, The Little Engine That Could,” Sommerville said. “He told us with our desire, we could overcome talent any day. You can play a really talented team, but how bad do they want it? We’re a really talented team also, and with our desire we were able to overcome.”

A quite fitting story for a team that climbed its way up the NCAA tournament on the shoulders of four seniors by believing in itself. Sommerville, Tony Bennett, Lawrence Wright and Brandyn Heemskerk led the Braves to a place in Bradley basketball history, ending a 51-year drought by advancing to the Sweet 16.

Sommerville might get credit for starting the celebration in the stands at the Palace after the Pittsburgh game. But the resulting party wasn’t exactly the plan. The 6-foot-7 forward spotted his wife Brooke in the stands.

“She was running down and I wanted to meet her halfway just to hug her and tell her thank you,” Sommerville said. “I guess the guys saw it as an opportunity to do the same with everyone else. I hugged a couple people I didn’t even know and some people kissed me on the cheek. It was a great feeling. We went over to thank them and it turned into a big, old family reunion.”

The good feelings continued for Sommerville in the week leading to the Sweet 16 game, when he learned he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He received a call from Coach Les while in class one day … actually three calls. “I was like, ‘Oh shoot, what’d I do now? We’re playing so well, what’d I do?’ I took some time coming over because I was in class,” Sommerville said. “I really thought I was in trouble.”

“So I get to his office,” Sommerville continued, “and he says, ‘Come here, look at this.’ I saw it and … what can you say to that? It’s definitely an honor. I wouldn’t be on it without my teammates and without being able to play for Bradley and Peoria, the places that I love.”

Those who watched the Memphis game may recall Tony Bennett’s favorite moment from the NCAA tournament. Near the end of the game, the 6-foot guard was removed after fouling out. On his way to the bench he was stopped by Les. The two embraced and shared words.

Bennett took a couple more steps and was stopped by assistant coach Eric Buescher, who also embraced Bennett for a couple words. “Coach Les told me I had a friend in him for life and Coach Buescher told me he was proud of everything I’ve accomplished and was glad he was able to coach me,” Bennett said. “Those two comments alone were the best part of the tournament. Two individuals like those guys, to speak so highly of you, it just brings an instant smile to your face. That’s something I’ll never forget.”

Broadcasters

Radio broadcasters Dave Snell ’76, left, and Joe Stowell ’50 MA ’56 talk with former basketball player Marcus Pollard ’94 at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Michigan.

He likely won’t forget playing Kansas and Pittsburgh in the tournament either, though Bennett insists the Braves treated those games— against traditional Big 12 and Big East powers—like any other game.

“It was just another day, another game,” Bennett said. “That’s how I looked at it. It’s just like playing at the rec center. You go shirts and skins. That’s how we viewed it, one team was shirts, one team was skins. They put their shorts on one leg at a time I hope; none of them is Superman.”
And he likely won’t forget the charter flight back from Detroit after the second round. “We were relaxing,” Bennett said. “It was like another game. The ride back was laid back.”

Then they landed to a sea of red-clad Bradley fans waiting for their arrival at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport.
“That’s when the excitement came,” he said. “We landed and saw all the people and said, “Man, all you came here for this.” That was an extra boost of energy. We were all tired from the weekend, and to see them out there, that was a spark.”

Lawrence Wright, the long 6-foot-4 forward they call “Boogie,” said he was most proud of making the Sweet 16 and the turnaround from last season when the Braves went 13-15. But like many of his teammates, there was pride in putting Bradley basketball back on
the map.
The idea of putting the program back on the map was reiterated when he went to the slam dunk and 3-point contest during the NCAA tournament’s Final Four weekend. While waiting for other players to shoot threes or attempted dunks, Wright chatted with some of his competitors.
“I was talking with Dee Brown and some of the other guys,” Wright said of the Illinois guard. “And they said we had done a great job this year. Most of them said, ‘I’ve never heard of Bradley before and you beat some really good teams.’ “

Broadcasters

Sophomore guard Daniel Ruffin greets fans at the Peoria airport after returning from Detroit, where the team upset both Kansas and Pittsburgh and advanced to the Sweet 16 game in Oakland, California.

“I’m happy people actually know who we are and where we’re from now,” Wright added. “I’m pretty sure teams are going to be aware of that next year.”
For next year’s team, Boogie passed this advice: “Play hard every game. You don’t have to have the best talent, the best players, or the best strategy. If you outwork and play harder than the other team, you’ll usually come out on top. And if you don’t, you still know you gave it your all, but the other team was just better.”

Brandyn Heemskerk won’t forget the days leading up to the Braves’ game against Memphis in the Sweet 16.

“When we got to Oakland, that was right about the time Sports Illustrated came out with Marcellus on the cover,” the 7-foot-1 fifth-year senior said. “We were on Sports Illustrated, and they do this thing where you get a police escort from the hotel to the game. It was all these things we had never experienced before … there was an extra buzz around the team. I was like, “Wow, this is what it’s like.”

This is what it’s like to make the Sweet 16: After a second-round victory, the team celebrates with their fans in the stands like it’s their own gym. “I think (some) people thought the Kansas game was a fluke,” Heemskerk said. “To come in two days later and knock out Pittsburgh, that was an incredible high. Some of us went into the crowd and savored the moment with the fans who traveled there. That’s my highlight of the run.”

This is what it’s like to make the Sweet 16: The basketball pundits talk about you on ESPN. “It’s kind of surreal,” Heemskerk said with a big smile and a laugh. “You’re watching and you’re like, ‘It’s us on the court; they’re talking about us.’”

And this is what’s it’s like to make the Sweet 16: Everyone around the program talks about making another run in the Big Dance. “Coach has talked about not wanting this to be a once every 50 years, once every 15 years thing,” Heemskerk said. “He wants this to be something every year. With the team he’s assembled, that’s possible.”