BYU center Shawn Bradley has recovered nicely from a recent plague of fouls, thank you.
On opening night of the Cougar Classic Friday at the Marriott Center, Bradley scored 29 points and blocked a school record 12 shots to lead BYU past scrappy Eastern Kentucky, 90-86.The 7-foot-6 Bradley, who spent much of BYU's last three games on the bench in foul trouble, was only whistled twice all night, both in the second half. Coach Roger Reid said Bradley spent the past couple of days in practice working on defensive footwork, and it helped.
Just ask Eastern Kentucky Coach Mike Pollio how much it helped. "I wish Shawn Bradley had gone on a mission," said Pollio. "He was the best center we've faced in two years."
Pollio said Bradley's shot-blocking didn't have as much impact as his mere presence.
"It wasn't the blocked shots that beat us," Pollio said. "What beat us was him making us change our shots."
The man who spent much of the night matched up with Bradley was 6-10 junior center Mike Smith. Smith ended up with nine points on three of 10 shooting, and may have had a half dozen shots swatted away by Bradley. He also got into foul trouble trying to guard Bradley, and committed a couple traveling calls trying to figure out how to get a shot off.
Bradley was typically low-key about his game, and unimpressed by his record. "I was more focused tonight," he said. "I didn't know there was a record to be broken. I just go out and play hard."
Once again, though, as Bradley and BYU's other inside defenders forced an opponent outside, the Cougars were hurt by good three-point shooting. The Colonels made nine of 15 three-point attempts, and it was two outside shooters, Jamie Ross and John Allen, who kept them in the game with 24 and 22 points, respectively.
And they did it despite what appeared to be BYU's best effort this season to halt the long-range gunning.
"We're trying to stop the outside shot, we really are," said Reid. "Teams are just shooting well against us."
Not that well, however. Eastern Kentucky managed just 42.9 percent from the field overall, compared to BYU's 62.7 percent.
BYU earned that hefty percentage by once again passing up the outside shot in favor of strong inside play, led by Bradley and Steve Schreiner (19 points).
The game started sloppily, with the teams frequently swapping turnovers and the lead throughout the first half. Time after time, the Cougars would force a Colonel turnover, only to hand the ball back to the Colonels on the offensive end.
BYU took the largest lead by either team, 44-38, on Scott Moon's three-pointer at the first-half buzzer.
Two minutes into the second half BYU held an 11-point advantage at 49-38, on a three-pointer by Mark Heslop and a layup by Schreiner. But the Colonels clawed back to take the lead, 75-74, with six minutes left in the game.
The lead changed hands five more times in the next two minutes, until Bradley hit a turnaround jumper over Smith to make it 80-79 BYU with four minutes left. On the other end of the court Bradley took a charging foul, and thirty seconds later he rebounded a missed free throw by Nathan Call and banked in a five-footer for an 83-79 lead.
Ross hit two free throws for EKU to cut the lead to two, and Schreiner responded with a layup off a pass from Jared Miller. The teams traded hoops for the next minute, and with one minute left it was BYU up 88-86.
The final minute consisted of three time outs and some missed shots, until EKU fouled Moon with four seconds left. Moon hit both shots for a four-point margin, and BYU let a Colonel fire up a desperation three-pointer that missed to end it.
BYU Coach Roger Reid was understandably pleased with the win, and with Bradley's play, though he is still cautioning that it's premature to expect too much of his 18-year-old center.
"It's nice when you have a freshman you can go to down the stretch," Reid said. "But you have to remember, there's times he's going to play well and times he's not going to play well."
Reid also warned against putting too much stock in blocked shots, noting that half of them ended up as two points on the subsequent shot. He pointed out that BYU still has a problem with limiting other team's offensive rebounds; Eastern Kentucky had 20 offensive boards.
One coach who was less cautious in his praise of Bradley was St. John's Lou Carnesecca.
"This kid is playing," Carnesecca said. "He could be a great one, a great one."
Then he took it a step further. "This kid will win the Wooden (that's the John Wooden Award, college basketball's equivalent of football's Heisman Trophy) before he's through," Carnesecca predicted.
Carnesecca and his 17th-ranked Redmen face BYU, now 4-2, tonight at 7:30 in the Classic title game, after cruising past George Mason University in the opening round. Reid said he watched part of that early game, and noted that St. John's has a lot of the same players that beat the Cougars two years ago in New York.
"We know we have our hands full," Reid said, "but we're looking forward to the challenge."
The challenge, in this case, is what to do against a team that has a lot of height. Unlike the Colonels, who had one player over 6-7, the Redmen have one 6-10 player and two at 6-11. It's the kind of frontline BYU hasn't seen this season, and could be another learning experience for Bradley.
If he handles it like he handled the foul problem, the Redmen may find their path to a Cougar Classic title . . . blocked.