PEORIA — The Bradley Braves needed a feel-good game, and what they got Saturday was equal parts venting frustration and basking in pure joy at being on the floor.
Rienk Mast finally got started, Malevy Leons couldn't be stopped and the Braves never let up on the way to an 83-41 pounding of an overmatched Merrimack team before 3,714 at Carver Arena.
What a night for Leons. He threw in a career-high 32 points and was nearly perfect, shooting 11-of-12 from the field, 5-of-5 from 3-point range and 5-of-5 at the free throw line.
What a night for the Braves' collective psyche, as Mast was a surprise start in a game-time decision that returned him to the lineup for the first time this season.
Live stats: Merrimack at Bradley
"I was just trying to keep calm, because I know when I get too fired up I get gassed the first four minutes of the game," Mast said, grinning broadly. "It's so much fun to be out there with the guys again. And then you play a game like this where it's a little easier to play … after these last two games (losses in the Cancun Challenge) this game was perfect to get a good feeling going into the conference."
Mast had not played since spending 17 minutes on the floor for Netherlands national team in an exhibition in Europe against Lithuania in August. Saturday marked his first minutes in a game in North America since last March.
He suffered an MCL sprain in his right knee in the walkup to the season, and was expected to be out 4-8 weeks. Saturday, he made it back in 4½.
"Great to have Rienk cleared today, get some minutes," Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. "His presence made the team's confidence go way up. He's an all-Valley guy. He loves to play, Rienk loves basketball and loves to compete.
"I think that's contagious when he puts that uniform on."
Malevy Leons had 17 points at halftime and Merrimack never did find a way to slow him down.
"Malevy was absolutely lights out, gave us a terrific game," said Wardle, of an ironman forward who has logged 30, 37, 31, 39 and 33 minutes in his last five games. "His conditioning has always been a strength, and until Zek (Montgomery) and Ja'Shon (Henry) and those guys can get back we're going to need him to log a lot of minutes for us."
Leons' 32 points were the most in a single game by a Braves player since guard Darrell Brown put in 32 at Indiana State on Jan. 5, 2019.
Leons' 11 made field goals were a career record. And his 32 points were the most for a Braves player in a home game since Dyricus Simms-Edwards hit 32 on Feb. 10, 2013, against Northern Iowa.
"You just want to get out and work out your frustration," said Leons, referring to the carryover from losses to Auburn and Liberty in Mexico earlier this week. "It was a little bit of frustration, anxious to get the feeling of winning again.
"So I just go out there and play my best basketball."
Said Mast, looking over at Leons: "Malevy was almost perfect. He was great today."
The road back
Mast was 4-of-6 shooting and 4-of-4 at the free throw line for 12 points in his return, a carefully managed 17 minutes in which he played with a brace on his right knee.
Afterward, his excitement was palpable.
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"My first full contact was yesterday," said the first-team all-MVC preseason pick. "It was a great recovery. All the people who helped me did such a great job.
"You're going to have some bad days mentally during recovery. But the knee was smooth coming back. All the muscles around it are pretty strong and that helped. I didn't expect to be perfect. It was seeing how I felt out there during warmups. Then I thought, 'Alright, it all looks good let's try it out.' "
The numbers were fierce
Wardle preaches rebounding, and his team delivered a landslide on the boards Saturday. The Braves out-rebounded Merrimack 50-23, including 37 defensive rebounds.
The plus-27 rebounding margin tied for ninth-biggest in program history, matching a Feb. 29, 1964 game against Northern Michigan.
Bradley got a layup and consecutive 3s from Leons and a jumper from Mast amid a 10-3 run over 2:46 late in the first half and built a 39-20 lead at halftime.
They added a 10-1 run to open the second half and race to a 25-point lead.
"It's a trap game for a lot of teams," Wardle said. "We're on the road, Thanksgiving holiday, traveling. I was worried.
"But I'm proud of our team. No one has beaten Merrimack like that, they've played a tough schedule and been competitive in their games.
"I was proud that we got them down and kept them down. That's a good step for us."
Bradley improved to 4-3, while Merrimack slipped to 1-6. … Bradley coach Brian Wardle said fifth-year forward Ja'Shon Henry (concussion) remains in protocol, and will remain so for an unknown period of time. … The Braves head into the sneak-peek portion of the Missouri Valley Conference schedule, hosting Northern Iowa on Wednesday and traveling to Missouri State on Dec. 3, before stepping back into nonconference play for four games. … Bradley guard Connor Hickman had 14 points in 31 minutes and shot 5-of-9 from the field and 4-of-8 from 3-point range. … BU point guard Duke Deen had five assists and eight turnovers. Bradley had 22 turnovers overall partly a function of "trying to share the ball so much we made one pass too many at times," Wardle said. … The Braves had 12 made 3s. … Bradley shot 56.6% from the field and 50% from 3. … Merrimack guard Jordan Derkack had a team-best 13 points.
Dave Eminian is the Journal Star sports columnist, and covers Bradley men's basketball, the Rivermen and Chiefs. He writes the Cleve In The Eve sports column for pjstar.com. Reach him at 686-3206 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @icetimecleve.
FINAL — Bradley 83, Merrimack 41
The Braves improve to 4-3 with a feel-good game as Rienk Mast returns and Malevy Leons rips the net for a career high 32.
4:43 p.m. — Bradley 79, Merrimack 38
Malevy Leons just unstoppable, battles to the rim for an and-1 and now has 32 points.
4:32 p.m. — Bradley 69, Merrimack 34
Malevy Leons at 27 points with 7:23 left here. The last 30-point game logged by the Braves was guard Darrell Brown on Jan. 5, 2019.
Bradley cruising 30-14 in the half and holding an absurd rebounding edge: 40-14.
4:25 p.m. — Bradley 56, Merrimack 30
Bradley forward Malevy Leons has a new career-high with five 3s and 25 points with 11:43 still to play. He gives the Braves a 26-point lead with a 3 as the media break arrives.
Bradley has destroyed Merrimack on the boards, 36-12.
Rienk Mast with 8 points now in 14 minutes in his return from a knee injury.
4:12 p.m. — Bradley 49, Merrimack 24
The Braves open the second half with a 10-1 run in the first four minutes and roll to 25-point lead.
Braves had 7 made 3s in the first half, and have added two more by the under-16 media break. Malevy Leon is 4 of 4 from 3-point range.
3:48 p.m. — HALFTIME: Bradley 39, Merrimack 20
After a couple of tough losses at the Cancun Challenge, the Braves are getting back on track here against Merrimack. Mast played nine minutes in the first half, scoring six points on 2-for-3 shooting and adding two rebounds.
Bradley scoring leaders — Malevy Leons 17, Connor Hickman 9.
Merrimack scoring leaders — Jordan Derkack 6, Devon Savage 6
3:46 p.m. — Bradley pulls away just before the break
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Malevy Leons spark Bradley, who extends its lead. BU is in control. Leons is perfect from the field and has 17 points.
Bradley 39, Merrimack 17 | 25.5 seconds
3:36 p.m. — Bradley keeps the pressure on
The Braves have scored 14 of the last 17 points to begin pulling away. Malevy Leons and Connor Hickman lead the way with nine points each. The Braves have held Merrimack to 4-for-19 shooting.
Bradley 29, Merrimack 10 | 4:24
3:20 p.m. — Bradley stays in control
Mast comes in for another couple minutes and is helping Bradley maintain control over Merrimack. Darius Hannah is controlling the paint for the Braves.
Bradley 15, Merrimack 8 | 11:22
3:09 p.m. — Mast gets Bradley started
Rienk Mast, back in the lineup after a knee injury, gets BU on the board just 20 seconds into the game. He plays the first 2:37 before being subbed out. We'll see how much he plays today.
Bradley 7, Merrimack 3 | 15:20 first half
3:03 p.m. — Rienk Mast in the starting lineup
Rienk Mast, a first-team all-MVC pick, is in the lineup along with Connor Hickman, Malevy Leons, Duke Deen and Darius Hannah. Mast is wearing a brace on his right knee and will be on a minutes restriction.
2:03 p.m. — Bradley could get back a key player
Bradley center Rienk Mast (right knee injury) is dressed and warming up with the Braves in the pre-game as Merrimack comes into Carver Arena. He's a game-time decision, and if he does play he will be on restricted minutes.
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: College basketball: Bradley beats Merrimack as Rienk Mast returns