Bradley coach Brian Wardle walked into the locker room and kicked off his lucky red loafers.
“These are killing me,” he said.
Those Dorothy-like slippers had already danced unblemished through an unlikely Missouri Valley Conference Tournament run and stepped into unknown territory for everyone on the Braves roster with the program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006.
Wardle talked to reporters in his black socks. On a bench around the corner, someone had collected a few boxing gloves that have become a tradition and a metaphor for the Braves this season.
On Thursday afternoon at Wells Fargo Arena, Bradley had plenty of fight. It could have used a little more luck.
The 15th-seeded Braves nearly pulled off a stunner before crumbling in the final minutes of a 76-65 loss to No. 2 seed Michigan State. That Bradley was ever in this game, let alone leading in the second half, was inconceivable to many.
After all, these were the mighty Spartans of Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo, with 22 straight NCAA Tournament appearances and seven Final Fours in that span. The same Spartans who won the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships.
“We thought we were going to win,” Bradley guard Nate Kennell said in the locker room. “It sucks that we did lose. Really, the only people who thought we were going to be in this game today were the people right here.”
He’s right. Who thought the Braves, who finished in the middle of the pack at 9-9 in a mediocre Missouri Valley and who scored only 37 points in a January loss at Missouri State, had a chance against Michigan State?
The 18½-point underdogs were feisty from the tip.
Bradley jumped to a 10-4 lead and seemed to stun Michigan State with a 35-34 halftime lead. The undersized Braves hit six of their nine 3-pointers in the first half. They scrambled for loose balls, hustled after rebounds and took charges.
Their zone defense frustrated the Spartans shooters, and their zippy pace seemed even faster. Elijah Childs, a 6-foot-7 forward who is an inch shorter and 25 pounds lighter than Nick Ward, powerfully blocked the Spartans big man’s shot and sent him to the court.
“We’re a very tough, physical team too,” said Childs, who had 19 points and six rebounds. “We came into the game knowing it was going to be a physical battle.”
After Childs dunked for a 39-34 second-half lead and flexed in front of the Bradley fan section, the Spartans used a 10-0 run to assert some control. But the Braves withstood even that.
A 3-pointer by point guard Darrell Brown pulled them to 65-60 with less than two minutes remaining. The Spartans made their free throws to keep Bradley at bay, converting 25 of 26 for the game. Michigan State’s Cassius Winston was as dynamic as ever, keeping the Spartans afloat with 26 points and four assists in 38 minutes.
“I thought our toughness, our aggressiveness was there. Our confidence was there,” Wardle said. “It was just a matter of making some big shots at key moments, and it could have been a different outcome.”
Last week, Wardle tarnished Bradley’s reputation by banning a Peoria Journal Star reporter from covering a team event. After some national backlash, he apologized and opened the doors to the longtime beat reporter.
The Braves helped create a new narrative Thursday as a gritty team that doesn’t fold easily.
In the locker room afterward, players appeared dejected.
“It just hurts knowing we were so close,” said senior guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, who had 14 points and eight rebounds. “We fought — not just today, the whole season — to be in the position we are.”
There was also a sense of pride. The Braves understood they had played their best game of the season against one of the nation’s best programs.
“Nobody comes to the NCAA Tournament and just wants to play in one game and go home,” senior guard Luqman Lundy said. “But at the end of the day, I’m proud of my guys and how we competed.”
A couple of players asked an equipment manager how to obtain one of the towels they were given on the bench that had a bracket printed on it. Others removed the nameplates from their lockers as keepsakes. A manager removed a huge poster with a Bradley logo on it from a wall and carried it into the hall.
“I’m trying to take as much as I can,” freshman guard Armon Brummett said.
There was plenty of meaning to take from the game too.
The Braves lose seniors Lundy, Lautier-Ogunleye and forward Luuk van Bree, but Wardle said the team can build off the tournament experience. He wants the players to focus in the offseason on becoming more consistent offensively to avoid the peaks and valleys of this season.
“A bad month,” he said, is why Bradley was a No. 15 seed.
So he’ll take that collection of boxing gloves that the Braves signed after each road victory this season and hang them in the locker room.
“We’re proud of where we got, but we played to win today,” Wardle said. “We’ll put those boxing gloves up in the locker room in the offseason to remind them all 35 games matter. We cannot let up next year.”