Ball State women's basketball proved it can compete at the highest level in the Mid-American Conference.

One play — Ball State women's basketball coach Brady Sallee said one play was all that separated the Cardinals and Ohio in a slugfest between MAC leaders on Jan. 30.

But Sallee doesn't know where that play was. He said it could've been a couple turnovers over the course of the game. Or maybe some timely Ohio shots.

MAC West Division standings

Central Michigan - 7-2

Ball State - 6-2

Toledo - 5-3

Western Michigan - 5-4

Eastern Michigan - 4-5

Northern Illinois - 2-7

Whatever that "one play" was, it cost the Cardinals in a 68-67 loss, its first home loss this season. The 1-point game seemed to erase the memory of Ball State's 25-point loss at Ohio on Jan. 6.

"That's where our focus has to be: on how we played," Sallee said. "The win and loss is the byproduct. For [the players], it's killing them. But when you're trying to get to March and be your best, this is another step in the right direction."

The step the Cardinals took competing against Ohio proved they have what it takes to make a deep run in the MAC tournament in March.

To this point in the season, Ohio and Ball State have looked like two of the few teams that have the ability to win the MAC tournament this year.

The Bobcats have yet to lose a league game this year. They're 9-0 in MAC play. Ball State's only two conference losses have come to Ohio, which made the matchup even more intriguing.

One of the most compelling parts of the game were the conflicting styles of play — Ohio's fast-paced, high volume attack versus Ball State's physicality.

"Ohio does a great job with what they do," Sallee said. "They won the game there. We tried to win it by rebounding and points in the paint. But again, one play."

The Cardinals executed their game plan well, out-rebounding the Bobcats 42-25 in the contest. They won the points in the paint battle 30-18 and got to the free-throw line 35 times, where they hit 23 of the shots.

Senior Nathalie Fontaine, who led Ball State with 18 points and 12 boards, said rebounding was especially important against the visiting Bobcats.

"Before every game, we have keys we need to focus on, and [rebounding] is up there every time," she said. "We know that they shoot a lot of [3-pointers], but they drive it too. So we've got to go and get rebounds hard and not let them take it away from us."

Offensive efficiency was key in keeping the game close this time around. After shooting 32.7 percent in the first meeting of the season, Ball State shot at a 48.8 percent clip.

The Cardinals' inside-out approach exploited a Bobcat defense that leads the MAC in scoring defense and field-goal percentage against.

One plaguing similarity to its earlier 25-point loss, however, were turnovers. Ball State gave the ball away 25 times in the game, compared with 11 for Ohio.

The Bobcats got up 61 shots and 37 3-pointers in the game. They didn't shoot well, but baskets made start to add up with more opportunities.

"That's what turnovers allow them: to shoot 34 percent and still win," Sallee said. "I tell them all the time, fouls negate hustle. Tonight, turnovers negated hustle."

Despite the discrepancy in shot attempts, Ball State stayed in the game — and controlled a good portion of the fourth quarter for that matter — by playing smart with the ball and working the clock until it got a good shot.

The atmosphere at Worthen Arena was buzzing, and Sallee credited the fans for being loud. It had the feel of a game you'd see in March.

"I was just really excited to play in this game," junior Jill Morrison said. "It was a big stage. I'm jacked every game, but something was different."

The adjustments Ball State made in less than a month to put itself in a position to win against Ohio proved it belongs in the MAC's elite.

With the way the teams are playing, it wouldn't be a surprise to see a third matchup in the conference tournament.

"Our goal has not changed from day one," Sallee said. "And that's to be at our best in March. That's what we've been trying to do, and this is another step in doing that. We're a good basketball team."