PEORIA — SIU center Kavion Pippen was good Tuesday night. Bradley forward Donte Thomas was better.
In a game of whatever you can do, I can do better, Thomas took advantage of a split-second of indecision by the Salukis' junior to push a one-point lead to four in the final minute. Moments after Pippen converted a left-handed layup off the glass to pull SIU within one, 61-60, Thomas slipped by him on the left side of the lane, scored, and drew the foul with 48.7 seconds left. His free throw put the Braves up four, and they went on to win 68-62 to match last season's win total.
"I just stayed aggressive the whole game," said Thomas, who matched his career-high with 22 points. "I think I performed not so good, defensively, so I had to make up for it some way, and tonight it was scoring the ball."
Bradley (13-5, 3-2 Missouri Valley Conference) found Thomas just south of the left elbow on the lane, and moved to set a screen for him. Pippen momentarily looked to see where the screen was coming from, and before he knew it, Thomas had put the ball on the floor and was headed toward the rim. Pippen tried to block his shot from behind but fouled him. Thomas' free throw, his fifth on five tries at Carver Arena, put the Braves up 64-60. They never let the lead slip lower than two the rest of the way to remain undefeated at home (9-0).
SIU (10-8, 2-3) got four players into double figures, including Pippen, who had 13 points, but failed to finish off its best defensive possessions. Bradley scored eight points off seven offensive rebounds, including two by Thomas after the Salukis pulled within four early in the second half.
"When games are tight, guys are thinking offense. And it's gotta be the other way," SIU coach Barry Hinson said. "If we just get a stop, we'll get a chance. You can't trade baskets, and give them credit. They did a great job."
Darrell Brown and Jyaden Hodgson added 11 points each for the Braves, who momentarily moved into fourth place in the Valley after the only league game Tuesday night.
Sean Lloyd scored 14 points and handed out six assists to pace the Salukis. Tyler Smithpeters scored 13 and Armon Fletcher had 12.
SIU never trailed by more than six the last 10 minutes, but lost for the third time in its last four games. Starting point guard Marcus Bartley went 0 of 3 from the field and didn't score, and Aaron Cook went 1 of 5 from the field and scored four points. Bartley had five of the Salukis' 14 turnovers but four assists.
SIU got within one after Smithpeters' 3-pointer with 6:37 to go, but Thomas answered at the other end. Fletcher scored off a Pippen pass to pull the Salukis within one again with 5:42 left, but Thomas drove right around Pippen and laid it up at the other end.
Bradley coach Brian Wardle said Thomas made something out of a situation that normally doesn't end with a straight drive to the basket.
"We went to a play where we hit him at the high post, and kind of ran some screens on the side," he said. "We always tell him 'If there's an opportunity to drive the ball, drive the ball there if you don't see any gap-help,' and he was able to make that play. Stepped up and made a huge play with confidence. I give Donte a lot of credit there. That's just a player making a play, and we needed that a lot."