YPSILANTI, MICH - Head coach Tracy Roller stood with a smile as she watched her team build an 18-point lead over Eastern Michigan with 11 minutes to play Saturday.
But by the end of the game, Roller could do little but shake her head in confusion as Eastern finished the game with a 28-9 run to upset the Mid-American Conference West leaders, 76-75.
"We had no answer for them defensively in the second half," Roller said. "They were dribble penetrating, kicking for threes, pretty much doing whatever they wanted to offensively."
All season the Cardinals (18-6 overall, 10-3 MAC) have shown signs of weakness against tough zone defenses. After defeating Eastern 89-71 on Feb. 6, Eagles' head coach Suzy Merchant said they could not afford to play a man defense against Ball State.
"We felt like we had to play them zone," Merchant said. "We just can't match up with what they have offensively man-to-man."
But in the first half, the Cardinals overcame Eastern's defense, led by the inspired play of junior Tamara Bowie, who scored 17 points in the first half. As the Cardinals built a 13-point lead at halftime, they continually found good looks at the basket due to holes in Eastern's defense.
During halftime, Merchant said she made some adjustments to Eastern's defense, and despite falling behind by 18, the adjustments began to take effect.
Ball State also began playing a man defense, reminiscent of the coaching days of Brenda Oldfield.
"We were getting beaten off the dribble playing man," Roller said. "I hoped when we were beaten off the dribble playing that zone, we would have help. Then they started hitting threes."
In the final minutes, Eastern (15-9, 8-5) made hard shots look easy and made the Cardinals look like they were standing still as they hit 3-pointer after 3-pointer during the final stretch. With less than 15 seconds remaining, Ball State fouled Kris Kachaturoff - one of Eastern's best shooters - and she hit a pair of free throws for the lead, and eventually, the win.
"Shooting is already a 50-50 thing," Kachaturoff said. "I usually don't look at the basket before I shoot, but this time I did. I was just like, 'please go in, please go in.' It went in."
During the run, Ball State struggled to even get a look at the basket, as poor passing and ball handling kept the Cardinals from getting the ball in position for a high-percentage shot.
"We just didn't take care of the ball," Roller said. "Shala (Crook) played so well in the first half and she played a lot of minutes. I subbed for her probably a little bit more than I should have. When she's out there, we just do a lot of good things."
But, as has happened all season, when the game got tight in the end with the score close, the Cardinals were unable to find a player who could hit the big basket for the team.
"Ball State has not been that good in situations where it has been a close game," Merchant said. "It's easy to make shots in the first half when you're up by 12 or 15.
"It gets a little bit tougher to make things happen when it's close and the trigger gets a little tighter."
But in the team's ever-elusive goal of playing a full game, Roller said she was disappointed no players took charge when the team was playing poorly.
"For us, we have to play 40 minutes to compete in the MAC Tournament, she said. "I thought we were on our way after the first half. But we can't put two halfs together, and we haven't yet. (I hope) one of these days we'll start getting it."