Two months ago, junior Amy Zercher challenged the women's basketball team -- saying every game counts for the rest of the year.
The team has responded to that challenge by winning 13 of its last 15 games, highlighted with Saturday's 68-61 victory against Mid-American Conference West co-leader Toledo.
As has been the story this season, the team struggled at the beginning of the game. This time, however, it was not because of a lack of effort, but because the Cardinals could not hit a shot. The team started the game shooting 2 of 16, and did not hit that second shot until the eighth minute of the game.
Through hustle and emotional play, the Cardinals' defense saved the day, continually forcing Toledo into poor shooting positions and not allowing the Rockets to capitalize on the Cardinals' shooting woes.
"We had shooters who wouldn't shoot and people doing things they shouldn't do," Toledo head coach Mark Ehlen said. "We've got a veteran team, and when we got down we were trying too hard. That's a disappointment more than anything."
The Cardinals made up a four-point deficit to tie the game at halftime, mainly with strong defensive play and a dominant rebounding effort. The team collected 29 first-half boards, including 13 offensive while holding the Rockets to 15.
After the break, the teams quickly changed the manner of the game, pushing the ball up the court, inducting a faster tempo. The change of gameplay was all the Cardinals needed, as they broke open a 41-41 game when freshman Kate Endress was fouled on a three-point shot. She made all three free throws to start a 14-2 run that ended with a no-look pass from senior Shala Crook to senior Amy Fuller.
"I don't think Toledo is ever defeated," head coach Tracy Roller said. "They came back at us, but we just kept taking the punches and tried to stay in it in the second half."
The Rockets (12-8 overall, 7-2 MAC) made attempts to break the Cards' lead, but to no avail, as junior Tamara Bowie ended Toledo's last run with a 3-pointer with three minutes left to play.
"Coach kept telling us not to hesitate," Bowie said. "As soon as I got (the ball), I knew I was putting it up. Luckily, it fell for me."
Ball State hit eight more 3-pointers than the Rockets, and Ehlen could not give a reason why.
"I would have to watch the game tape," Ehlen said. "My eyes were closed most of the second half; I didn't like what I was seeing."
With under a minute to go, Crook was hit inadvertently by Toledo guard Shekinah Brazzle, resulting in a technical on Crook when she spiked the ball after being called for a five-second violation.
"Just in the heat of the moment, I've never had so much aggressiveness," Crook said. "It was just all about me keeping my composure."
After competing against three of the top five teams in the league, Roller said confidently the team is going in the right direction to achieving its main goal -- winning the MAC and going to the NCAA tournament.
"If you would have told me that we would have 29 rebounds at halftime, I would have said you were a liar, and you've been drinking or something," Roller said. "Our aggressiveness defensively and on rebounds kept us in the game. When you get a stat like that, you know you're tough.
"These kids compete, and that's what I love about them," Roller said. "You have to beat them; and from now on, we aren't beating ourselves."