Center Renee Bennett goes up for a shot while being guarded by Dominique McBryde during the Cardinals’ game against Purdue on Dec. 8 in Worthen Arena. The Cardinals have won all three of their MAC games so far this season, but are tied for first place in the West division with Central Michigan and Northern Illinois. Paige Grider // DN File
MAC PREVIEW: Ball State women's basketball looks to build on hot start
Renee Bennett’s expression said she was more annoyed than hurt.
The 6-foot-5-inch senior center had just been fouled hard with 3:23 left in the third quarter of the Cardinals’ 61-56 win over Western Michigan Jan. 7, knocked over as she went for a quick layup. It took her a hot second to stand up before hitting two free throws.
Five seconds later, Bennett was standing at the elbow on the defensive end, her feet set and arms crossed. Broncos sophomore guard Deja Wimby took the ball upcourt, her attention on Cardinals sophomore point guard Carmen Grande, who was matching her step for step. Wimby was a half-step ahead of Grande but kept her head down and crashed into Bennett for the charge.
Team statistics (rank in MAC)
Points per game: 69.2 (fifth)
Points against per game: 57.7 (second)
Shooting percentage: 43.8 percent (second)
Shooting percentage against: 34.5 percent (first)
Three-point shooting percentage: 31.2 percent (seventh)
Three-point shooting against: 28.7 percent (first)
Free-throw shooting: 65.0 percent (ninth)
Turnovers per game: 18.4 (12th)
Bennett hit the floor again, but this time her face showed excitement.
“It looked like all of our conference games have so far,” head coach Brady Sallee said. “Us being really tough on defense, really tough rebounding the ball, playing through mistakes, and it ended up getting us a big win.”
The Cardinals (10-5, 3-0) have won all three of their MAC games so far this season, but are in a three-way tie for first place in the West division with Central Michigan and Northern Illinois.
“There’s no separation yet, to be honest with you,” Sallee said. “The West is just going to be an absolute battle, and there’s no sense in thinking about anything until the end of February.”
Part of the division’s depth is its performance against the MAC East. West division teams are 9-1 against the East, winning with an average score of 80.5-67.1.
Defense has been the Cardinals' strong suit this season, leading the MAC in shooting percentage against (34.5 percent) and three-point shooting percentage against (28.7 percent) — both rates best in the MAC. The Cardinals are also third with 3.8 blocks and fourth with 8.9 steals per game.
Though Ball State's offense is only fifth in the conference (69.7 points per game), the team is second in the conference with a 43.8 shooting percentage and a plus-11.5 point average scoring margin. Three different players average double-digits in points: Bennett (15.9), junior forward Moriah Monaco (15.3) and senior guard Jill Morrison (10.7).
Still, for all of the strengths there are two glaring deficiencies: free throws and turnovers.
The Cardinals only make 65 percent of their free-throws, the fourth-worst rate in the MAC. On Nov. 24, they lost to East Carolina in overtime after going 4-9 at the free-throw line in the final six minutes of regulation.
"Add it to the list of things that keep me up at night," Sallee said.
And while Ball State is second in the conference with 17.6 assists per game, it's also last with 18.4 turnovers per game, including 21 against Western Michigan and 30 in its Dec. 31 win at Toledo.
“We’ve got to get some things fixed because we can’t keep surviving this way," Sallee said. "But at the end of the day, if you asked me 'would you rather have low turnovers, make all your free throws, or have the toughest team on the floor?' I would choose number three every single day. Because I know we can continue to work on those first two and make those better, but when you have toughness as your main ingredient, it tastes pretty good."
Toughness, like Bennett's play in the post. On top of leading the team in points, she hauls in 8 rebounds per game and her willingness to work the paint has helped her make 53.4 percent of her shots, good for fifth in the MAC.
But 3-0 is just a good start, especially in what looks to be a competitive MAC West.
“We’re not thinking that we’re the UConn of the MAC or anything like that," Bennett said. "I think at this point we just need to move forward and keep preparing the way that we have for the previous three games."