DN DECADE: The Maui Miracle
An upset of major proportions
Morry Mannies leaned into his radio microphone and could hardly believe what he was telling the Ball State University men's basketball fans who listened intently on the other end.
"The Cardinals still lead UCLA by double digits late in the second half," the longtime voice of Ball State sports said.
Mannies' words trailed from his voice and entered his thoughts. Could he really trust what he was seeing? Was it possible the planets were aligning to usher the unassuming Cardinals to a cosmic upset run through the 2001 Maui Invitational? At that moment, anything seemed possible.
Fellow alum Joe Hernandez, Ball State associate athletics director, followed the tournament with other administrators at an alumni watch party.
"The competitive nature in you thinks you can go in and win every game," Hernandez said. "The one thing about the coaching staff at that time was they were exceptional at preparing for an opponent. We were very well prepared, and I think we surprised a lot of people."
There's a certain script these games are supposed to follow. An unheralded, unranked team from the Mid-American Conference isn't expected to hang with the big boys from the national top five. But with Ball State holding that double-digit lead against No. 3 UCLA a night after edging No. 4 Kansas University by two points, that script was being crumpled up and heaved into the trash.
We've seen national upsets before. Gonzaga University turned the college basketball world upside down when it reached the Elite Eight in 1999. George Mason University one-upped Gonzaga seven years later when it made a trip to the Final Four.
But sandwiched between those two shockers was the Maui Miracle, when Ball State beat two top-five opponents on consecutive nights before narrowly falling to the defending national champions and top-ranked Duke University.
Despite the confidence within Ball State's athletics department, the Cardinals upset run went against the grain of conventional wisdom. Current coach Billy Taylor, an assistant at UNC-Greensboro in 2001, remembers how impressed he was with Ball State's performance in the Maui Invitational.
"That team just had a tremendous tournament in Maui," Taylor said. "For the players and coaching staff, it was a tremendous accomplishment. It was great exposure for the university, and it really sent a message not only around the state, but around the country about Ball State basketball."
Spectacular moments on the national stage are scattered throughout Ball State's sports history. The most recent of which being the football team's magical 12-0 regular season in 2008.
Back in 2001, students didn't have a proud football program to make them smile. The year before, Ball State snapped a 21-game losing streak that had become a national mockery. Brady Hoke, a little-known assistant coach from the University of Michigan, was hired a year later to pull the program out of the muck.
But the one thing students did have to feel good about was Petie Jackson, Theron Smith and the men's basketball team.
"There was just a tremendous amount of enthusiasm on campus," Mannies said. "We were all dancing in the streets when it was over."
The Cardinals advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1990 before losing a two-point heartbreaker to an UNLV team that beat Duke by more than 30 points in the national championship game. That 1990 NCAA tournament run is still widely considered the most important moment in Ball State athletics.
Other than that team, however, Mannies said the Maui Miracle was the second-greatest moment Ball State basketball has ever had.
"We didn't fall into a win," Mannies said. "We took [Kansas and UCLA] on head-to-head and beat them. We ran UCLA off the court. It really put a target on our back in the regular season."
In the end, that target proved too much for Ball State to carry. After the Maui Miracle, expectations nationally and within the fan base couldn't have been higher. But a 13-point loss at Indiana University and a nine-point home loss to Butler University sent the Cardinals crashing from their perch.
Ball State finished the regular season 19-10, a good record that felt empty without a MAC Championship. It advanced to the Elite Eight of the NIT, a run that felt even emptier without a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
The end of the 2001-02 season represented the last great year for the program. Ball State has had only one winning season since. Coach Tim Buckley was fired after leading the Cardinals to a 10-17 record in 2005-06. You may recall Buckley's replacement — Ronny Thompson. That stint didn't last long, as Thompson fled Muncie after one year with the program's reputation a national disgrace.
Ball State has a 32-66 record in the past three-and-a-half years. Taylor said his goal is to bring the program back to that moment when anything seemed possible.
"Those national tournaments are very difficult to be successful," Taylor said. "And our goal is to get back to that national level. The thing that's great for us and our program is it has been done here before. That's something that's important to me as I talk to prospects and their families. We have to get back to that level."