Kiley Jarrett and Porchia Green hug after beating No. 5 seed Tennessee on March 22, 2009 at Western Kentucky University. The Cardinals won the game 71-55 to move on to the second round, where they fell to No. 4 seed Iowa State. DN PHOTO/ JOSH PECKLER
Oral History: The biggest win in Ball State women's basketball history
A David vs. Goliath matchup; a new coach marching her team into a “sea of orange” to match up with one of women’s college basketball’s most storied programs. It looked even more one-sided than games that are scripted in the movies, the first round of the NCAA Tournament featuring one team that had never been there before against a team that had never lost in the first round of the big dance and was coming off back-to-back national championships.
A matchup that produced some historic firsts on both sides. An all-time upset. A new precedent.
In the history of Ball State women’s basketball, the Cardinals have only made one NCAA Tournament appearance. But during that run in 2009, Ball State brought a community together to see a tiny Mid-American Conference school slay the Southeastern Conference giant that had dominated women’s college basketball for decades.
Ball State women’s basketball 2008-09 roster
00 - Suzanne Grossnickle - Forward (Fr.)
3 - Porchia Green - Guard (Sr.)
11 - Shannon Klei - Guard (So.)
12 - Kiley Jarrett - Guard (Sr.)
21 - Kyleigh Jones - Guard (So.)
23 - Patrice King - Guard (Fr.)
25 - Dana Moorman - Guard/Forward (Sr.)
32 - Jade Barber - Forward (Fr.)
33 - Audrey McDonald - Guard (Jr.)
35 - Danielle Gratton - Forward (Jr.)
40 - Amber Crago - Center (Fr.)
41 - Emily Maggert - Forward (So.)
The time Ball State took down Tennessee and Pat Summitt in the NCAA Tournament.
It’s been almost seven years since Ball State did the unthinkable. Almost seven years since the Cardinals dominated the first two rounds of the Mid-American Conference Tournament and survived Bowling Green — “the team to beat” — in the championship game. Almost seven years since Ball State had a selection show party and found out it would be playing Tennessee in Bowling Green, Ky.
Almost seven years since Ball State pulled off an upset deemed “the tourney’s greatest ever” by Mechelle Voepel of espnW.
“It doesn’t get scripted like that. So you’re a No. 12 seed playing a No. 5; ... you’re playing the defending national champions. That doesn’t happen,” said Audrey McDonald-Spencer, a junior guard on the team at the time. “You’re a mid-major that Tennessee’s head coach doesn’t even know where you are. No one wanted to know about Ball State until that happened.”
McDonald-Spencer is now an assistant coach on this year’s Cardinals team, who is 20-8 (12-5 MAC).
With one game left in the regular season this year, Ball State has already locked up a bye in the MAC Tournament. The Cardinals don’t have to look too deep into their history to find inspiration for making it to their second NCAA Tournament.
“I don’t know if we were quite even ready to realize just how much history we could make at that moment,” said Danielle Gratton, a junior forward on the 2008-09 team. “We just knew Tennessee was our opponent, it’s a big stage and this is what we want.”
Almost seven years after the biggest win in program history, a retracing of the win that put Ball State women’s basketball on the map.
Following a 15-15 season the year before, head coach Tracy Roller — who had recruited the players on the team and spent seven years at the school — resigned due to personal reasons.
Ball State hired Kelly Packard, a former Colorado State assistant, to take over a program on the verge of doing something special.
The players on the team were tight-knit in 2008-09. “A family,” senior guard Porchia Green called them. But with change came resistance, and Ball State stumbled out of the gate going 7-6 in the non-conference schedule.
Pat Quinn, associate athletics director: "Obviously I was involved with the search that ultimately hired Coach Packard. Starting the season, I think there was a little uncertainty. … I think they changed styles a little bit. The atmosphere of the team was a little bit different."
Green: "I remember meeting Coach Packard for the first time that season. And I remember these oh so cute pair of heels she had on. I had no idea at all that she was our new coach, and when I walked in I was like, 'Nice heels,' and sat down."
Packard: "I think they were just trying to understand who I was, could I be trusted, did I have their best interest — all the things young women need to know in order to want to play hard for you. I did sense early on that they just weren’t sure about me."
McDonald-Spencer: "It took us until Christmas to kind of feel her out and see where she was coming from, but thank goodness we did. Because it was one heck of a ride."
Ball State started out the conference schedule 7-2, then reeled off eight wins in a row to end the regular season and finish with a 22-8 record. The Cardinals won the first round of the MAC tournament by 25 over Miami, then earned a 68-54 victory over Buffalo in the semifinals.
That set up a date with Bowling Green in the finals, who had beaten Ball State during the regular season. Kurt Miller’s Falcons had spent time in the AP Top 25 that season, they were deep and talented and could “shoot the lights out.”
Packard: "Getting to Cleveland and being a part of the whole MAC tournament, playing at the Q, seeing some of the Cavs players, you’re caught up in all that. But there was a confidence there that was healthy."
Kiley Jarrett, senior guard: "We had a chip on our shoulder going into the postseason tournament."
Packard: "I remember my timeouts during that tournament in Cleveland. Our timeouts were, like, so passionate. I verbally told them how much I believed in them."
Emily Maggert, sophomore forward: "Bowling Green was probably our No. 1 rival at that time. … We were a little bit bigger at the time, they were a little bit smaller. They were faster, but we were stronger. It was a battle the entire game."
In a tied game with 26 seconds left, Green hit a driving scoop layup to give the Cardinals the lead. Following a steal, Green hit another layup to give Ball State a 55-51 win and a ticket to its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth.
Green: "I remember I could not hit a shot in that championship game. But it was a couple of seconds, maybe last minute of the game, and we [needed a] score, and Coach Packard asks who wants to take the shot. My teammates looked at me, knowing that I have not hit any shots, but they believed in me."
McDonald-Spencer: "To be able to get there and get [Bowling Green] in a crazy fashion the way we did, it was just a surreal feeling and one that probably didn’t sink in until a couple days later."
Maggert: "That’s what you go to college and play basketball for."
Packard: "I remember clicking on ESPN on my phone and it said something about 'Welcome to the Ball' in reference to Ball State. And that’s when I was like, 'This is actually more than the conference tournament championship.'"
Jarrett: "I knew once we won that conference championship that our next opponent in the NCAA Tournament was going to be in trouble."
Gratton: "It was never, 'We won it, we did it, we’re done.' It was, “We won it, we did it, who’s next?'"
The Ball State team piled into Damon’s Restaurant in Muncie with all the players’ families and school supporters to watch the selection show. Sitting at a huge table, the Cardinals had their eyes glued to the screen, awaiting their inaugural NCAA Tournament opponent.
No. 5 seed Tennessee (22-10) was first to show up on the bracket, and Damon’s went silent. When it was announced that Ball State would square off against the Volunteers in the Berkeley Region, the place erupted with screams of joy.
The players started saying things like “bring it on,” and “we’ve got this” right away. But whether they truly believed it at the time is still a question to this day.
McDonald-Spencer: "I had these old Tennessee shorts I used to wear occasionally on the weekends or whatever. Because growing up, Tennessee is Tennessee. You’d go to a game and get gear. So I’d had these shorts that were too small and dirty and whatever else. I happened to wear them on selection day, earlier in the day."
Jarrett: "As the selection show went on and the teams started going up on the board, I looked at one of my teammates and said, ‘We’re going to be playing Tennessee,’ before it even showed up on the bracket."
Green: "Every girl who plays ball wanted to play for Pat Summitt."
Packard: "Whatever I may have been feeling internally when I saw that come up, I had to filter it really quickly, because you can’t have this response, which is, “Well that’s the last thing we would’ve wanted.” But inside you’re going, “OK, this is the one time we get here and we draw Tennessee?'"
Quinn: "It was almost like they were happy. It wasn’t like Southern Mississippi or something like that. They wanted, I think, to face the best. … I don’t think there was ever a doubt in their mind."
Gratton: "We kind of remember that we were announced as playing Tennessee as the No. 12 seed and Pat Summitt kind of mouthed, 'Who is that? Who’s Ball State?''
Leading up to the game at Western Kentucky, Ball State prepared for Tennessee like it had every other team throughout the season. Packard said she told the team to respect Tennessee for its sustained success, but also remember the road Ball State had paved to get here.
The team traveled down to Bowling Green, Ky., the day before the game at Western Kentucky University. The site also played host to the matchup between No. 4-seed Iowa State and No. 13-seed East Tennessee State.
Naturally, the media surrounded Tennessee to see how the Volunteers would fare in the tournament following a less-than-average season by its standards. In fact, the No. 5 seed that the Volunteers were granted was the lowest in program history. The teams went through meetings and interviews the day before the game as part of the NCAA protocol.
The difference between the team making its first appearance and the team who had never lost in the first round was clear. But Ball State didn’t lose sight of the task at hand.
Packard: "Pat Summitt is in her sweat suit and her shoes, just relaxed at these meetings. I didn’t know any better; I’m kind of decked to the nines like I’m going to coach."
Gratton: "We built our own walls at that point, of hearing the positive outside and support, but knowing the people that had our backs were going to be on that court and that bench."
Maggert: "This sounds crazy, and my husband still laughs at me, but we knew going into that game that we were going to win. There was no plan B."
McDonald-Spencer: "[The media] were going to say whatever they wanted to say, and we were OK with that. We had gotten it all year. Nobody thought we’d beat Bowling Green either."
The difference between Ball State and Tennessee was even bigger than it looked on paper. Literally.
Tennessee’s starting point guard lined up at 6-foot-1. Ball State’s starting point guard lined up at 5-foot-4. Tennessee’s starting center was 6-foot-5. Ball State’s center, 6-foot-1. The Volunteers featured future WNBA players Shekinna Stricklen, Glory Johnson and Kelley Cain, among others.
Iowa State and East Tennessee State played before Ball State and Tennessee. The Cardinals were nervous, but ready. As the teams were warming up, NCAA women’s basketball’s all-time winningest coach came through the tunnel, bringing the crowd — three-fourths of which was decked out in iconic Tennessee orange and white — to its feet.
Gratton: "Coming out for warmups, and all we saw was a sea of orange. It was a complete sea of orange except for this little section of red and black where our family was, where the Ball State faithful was, where our administrators were."
McDonald-Spencer: "So we’re warming up and Pat Summitt walks out. Well the place erupts, it goes crazy. You would’ve thought somebody just hit a 3 to win the game. But no, Pat Summitt was just walking out."
Packard: "I thought what an incredible tradition of success that these people would give her, that honor of erupting as soon as they saw the top of her head come through the tunnel. But I felt intimidated. She didn’t make me feel that way. I just felt intimidated. It was Pat Summitt."
Jarrett: "It was loud. And looking at the other end of the court, to me, you were looking at giants."
Packard: From the point guard to the center, you’re like, 'How are we going to be able to compete?'"
Packard’s concerns became a reality in the first half. Tennessee center Kelley Cain had 10 early points and guided the Volunteers to an early lead. But Cain went down with an injury, changing the course of the game on the inside.
Packard: "Early on in that game they go to her and we’re struggling. And I remember a timeout I said to my coaching staff, 'I’m not sure what we’re going to do about our post defense.'"
Maggert: "She was strong. I was younger, she was older. … I still think we would’ve won with her in there, but it made it a lot easier to do so after she left."
Green: "I remember after that injury, Ball State women's basketball team started to go on a run."
It didn’t take long for the Cardinals to prove they could compete. Gratton gave Ball State its first lead halfway through the first half, and the Cardinals took a 29-28 lead into halftime after Gratton’s jumper with 42 seconds left.
Gratton: "I remember I hit a basket to put us ahead for the first time that game in the first half, but I remember the feeling after the shot of like, ‘Come on now, we’ve gotta D up.'"
Green, who led the Cardinals with 23 points, scored 6 straight to give Ball State a 35-33 lead in the second half. She was one of three Cardinals in double figures, as Jarrett had 14 and McDonald-Spencer poured in 18.
Packard: "Each shot that they made, it became such a faith boost for them that by halftime I could tell I didn’t need to address at all the fact that we were going to be able to stay in the game and compete."
McDonald-Spencer: "I remember Porchia Green just going nuts. They couldn’t stop her."
Green: "All I can hear on the side line is Pat Summitt and her staff screaming and yelling."
Jarrett: "Most specifically, a moment of mine was when I hit a fadeaway jump shot from the left side of the wing right in front of the Tennessee bench over a 6-foot-2 player. That was big for me."
Packard: "It was the second half. ... [McDonald-Spencer]'s defender was trailing her a little bit. Sure enough, we send an up pass and her footwork was so clean that she got the shot off about two steps beyond the arc, and I knew when it left her hand it was going to go. But her transition defender saw and was sprinting with her whole life to get any kind of contest up. And the look on this kid’s face is, 'I’m in trouble.' When [she] buried that shot, I pretty much knew that they were going to win."
Quinn: "[McDonald-Spencer] was obviously as good of 3-point shooter as I’ve ever seen come through this school, men or women."
McDonald-Spencer: "Jarrett and I are standing at half court with a couple minutes to go, and I looked at the scoreboard and looked at her, and said, 'Ki, we’re gonna beat them. It’s over. We got this.'"
Gratton: "Coach Packard you could just tell was kind of relishing in the moment at that point. She brought us back to focus and was like, 'Finish strong. Enjoy this moment, this is what you guys deserve.' And her being very experienced and mature, she knew a moment like that was something we might not ever feel again."
Ball State pulled away, winning the game 71-55. Players, fans and coaches rushed the floor to celebrate when the final buzzer sounded.
It was Tennessee’s first first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament and the first time the Volunteers had failed to make the Sweet 16, as they were 42-0 in the first two rounds prior to the loss.
Maggert: "You’re going through the line shaking hands, and [Summitt] says, 'Good job, and good luck in the next round.' But it’s very surreal."
McDonald-Spencer: "I remember hugging everybody on our team, everybody flying out onto the floor. To be able to see some of the faces of some of the people in Orange was priceless, too. Because they were stunned."
Packard: "At the time, yes [I believe it was the greatest upset ever]. So much of that is because the name of Pat Summitt. Tennessee yes, but Pat Summitt has a whole ’nother power in women’s basketball."
Ball State’s win took the college basketball community by storm. The Cardinals were the lowest seed in the tournament to advance that year.
"I think when you watch teams like Ball State, you can't help but get excited," Rutgers coach C. Vivian Stringer said about the game. "The mid-majors are catching up, and you can't predict as much as you did before, and it is good for the game because it spurs the interest of everyone across the country."
Two days later, Ball State took on No. 4 seed Iowa State. The Cardinals hung around in the first half, but trailed 28-25 going into the locker room. Jade Barber’s 3-point play tied the game at 33 in the second half, but the Cyclones pulled away late for a 71-57 win.
McDonald-Spencer: "And our coaches did a great job of trying to keep it normal, but you can’t. It’s just impossible."
Packard: "If we would’ve had an extra day more than we had to game prep, I think we might’ve been able to get out of there again. I’m grateful for the experience, but what ended up happening from the media to all the attention that our players got nationwide was hard not to get caught up in all of that."
Jarrett: "I think that given a little more rest, we may have had a chance. But I didn’t dwell on it. We got to the NCAA Tournament. No other team has done that in Ball State history, and we were able to knock out Tennessee. Iowa State was a very, very good team."
Ball State still finished the 2008-09 season with the most wins in school history, ending with a 26-10 record. A 12-game winning streak, also a school record, to end the season led to the program’s first NCAA Tournament run.
Gratton said people will argue reasons why Ball State’s win over Tennessee wasn’t the biggest upset in tournament history, but she believes it is. The significance of the victory changed the outlook for the Ball State women’s basketball team.
It established a new standard.
“Probably the most humbling feeling I had [was] when we got back from Bowling Green, Ky., I went back to my office for a normal work day,” Packard said. “I remember sitting down at my desk and my thought was — and this probably isn’t the right thought but I’m being honest — how am I ever going to repeat this next year?
“And so the reality is, can I just enjoy this for what it was? And understand that this is going to leave its mark in the history right here. And to think I’ve gotta repeat that is a daunting thought.”
Ball State still hasn’t made another NCAA Tournament to this day. The Cardinals made it to the semifinals in 2013-14, but fell to Akron. They have made it to the Women's National Invitation Tournament three years in a row.
Under the leadership of head coach Brady Sallee, Ball State has its first 20-win season since that historic year. Looking to the 2009 run as inspiration, Ball State is trying to return to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’re moments and months from doing it again, in my opinion,” McDonald-Spencer said. “To right now be the only team that’s done it, that’s a huge honor. But I’d want nothing more than for more Ball State teams to do it.”