Tayler Persons looks forward to shoot a free throw in the first half against the Oakland City Mighty Oaks Nov. 28 at John E. Worthen Arena. Persons contributed 11 points to the Ball State win, 81-57. Grace Hollars, DN
Ball State grinds out fifth straight win against Valparaiso
Opposing teams don’t want Tayler Persons to have the ball while the clock is running out.
Trailing by two points with 15.5 seconds left, the junior guard drove the ball down the court, trying to find a lane to the basket, but was forced to settle for a 3-point shot with a hand in his face. He put up a shot from what seemed to be the same spot as the game-winner against Notre Dame.
And he hit it — again.
“The fact that we were able to find a way to win and hit a second buzzer beater that looked exactly like the first one is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen,” head coach James Whitford said.
That shot earned Ball State (6-4) a 71-70 victory over Valparaiso (8-2) marking the teams fifth straight victory of the season. For the most part, Ball State struggled shooting the ball and Whitford said “the game felt funny,” the entire time.
For a stretch of five minutes, though, Ball State didn’t look like it could miss. After going 9-27 from the field in the 20 minutes, Ball State had a near perfect start in the second half hitting eight of its first nine shots, including a trio of 3-pointers which brought the 5,009 fans at Worthen Arena to its feet.
Outside of that stretch, however, Ball State fought to get points on the board against a Valparaiso defense that showed different looks throughout the game.
"We didn't play particularly well and I thought that was a credit to Valparaiso," Whitford said. "We had a tough night in many different respects and one of them was shooting the basketball."
Part of Ball State's struggle was because Valparaiso's defense switched to a zone, something that Whitford says he hasn't seen from them all season. Once the Cardinals adapted, however, Whitford said getting shots off wasn't an issue.
Ball State finished shooting 45 percent from the floor and 31.8 percent from behind the arc after a first half where it shot 33.3 percent overall and 22.2 percent form 3-point range. Valparaiso had a near identical shooting performance, finishing 45.3 percent from the floor and 40.9 percent from 3-point range even with missing its leading scorer in senior Tevonn Walker (16.4 PPG) who was out because of sickness.
While Ball State only led for 11:17, it forced 18 turnovers compared to Valparaiso's 10 and there's something to be said about grinding out another victory against a top 100 opponent.
"I'm just proud of the way our team fought," Persons said. "We were kind of sluggish and we kind of turned it on in the second half. ... Valpo is a very good team."
Persons led all scorers with 23 points followed by sophomore Kyle Mallers, senior Jeremie Tyler and junior Trey Moses who all finished with 10 a piece. Valparaiso also had three players, Joe Burton (17), Bakari Evelyn (14) and Derrik Smits (12), finish in double digits in terms of scoring.
Tyler, who has seen limited time after a one-game suspension served early this year, played 25 minutes tonight and led Ball State's defense with 3 steals. Whitford put Tyler on the point guard on defense and moved Persons off, which he said made a difference down the stretch for the team.
"I'm glad I'm back, the team does need my defensive presence and I do really get after it on the ball," Tyler said. "It's a good feeling that I rely on my defense first."
That's seems to be a message for the entire team as players like senior Sean Sellers continue to step up on the defensive end, which as a result, leads to offensive production.
During the Cardinals run early in the second half, Sellers went on a quick run which erupted the fans in Worthen Arena. He stole the ball away from a Crusader player and turned it into a quick few points, drew a charge on the other end of the floor and forced a jump ball on the next possession.
"I haven't shot the ball well all year, but I'm trying to find other ways to help my team win," Sellers said.
Ball State is on a 10-day break following this five game win streak, with its next game coming against North Florida on Dec. 19.
Contact men's basketball reporter Robby General at email@example.com or on Twitter @rgeneraljr.