In a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Ball State University faced the University of Tennessee at Martin Saturday afternoon at Worthen Arena in the annual ESPNU BracketBusters game.
The winner increases its chance of busting into the field of 64 teams in March's NCAA Tournament.
The loser desperately moves on, looking for a lucky break down the road to get into the Big Dance.
OK, well, this wasn't exactly the scenario. It was Ball State hosting UT Martin in the BracketBusters contest, but, barring any conference tournament championships, neither the Cardinals nor the Skyhawks will be dancing come March.
But a game still needed to be played, and Ball State came out on top 68-52, increasing UT Martin's headache of a 2009-10 season as the Skyhawks fell to 4-23 overall and 0-14 on the road.
With the game being Ball State's final non-conference matchup before playing three Mid-American Conference games and entering the MAC Tournament, junior forward Malik Perry said he wanted to treat the UT Martin game just as if it were a MAC contest.
"You've just got to be competitive – it's Division I basketball," he said. "Once you look past your opponent, then it's going to be easy to take a loss. So, we've got to take it as if it's a conference game."
Though Perry said his team didn't want to look past the Skyhawks, UT Martin was certainly having its way with Ball State in the opening minutes of the game – especially on the offensive glass.
Less than five minutes into the game, UT Martin led 7-4 as it tallied more offensive rebounds – five – than points allowed to Ball State.
The Cardinals countered by attacking the paint with Perry, senior forward Terrence Watson and sophomore center Jarrod Jones. Though Ball State came back to take the lead for the final time of the game, 15-13 with 9:39 remaining in the first half, UT Martin just wouldn't go away, and the Cardinals led by just four, 26-22, at halftime.
"I think, the first half, we kind of took them for granted a little bit," Perry said. "At the end of the game, it's basketball, it's a game, and you've got to be competitive no matter who you play and who you step on the floor against."
Ball State came out with more energy in the second half and turned what was a four-point lead into a double-digit lead a little more than six minutes into the half simply by knocking down more shots.
The Cardinals shot 56 percent (14-of-25) from the field in the second half compared to 34.5 percent (10-of-29) in the first half.
"We gave up too many offensive rebounds at the start of the game, and that wasn't the way that we wanted to start," coach Billy Taylor said. "The second half, we just wanted to get back to playing the way that we know that we can, that we're capable of, which is sharing the basketball on offense, which we did a much better job in the second half, and then still playing really solid team defense."
Though the Cardinals shot the ball better in the second half, neither team really helped itself out beyond the 3-point line.
Ball State converted just 2-of-11 (18.2 percent) of its 3-point attempts in the game, while UT Martin was even worse, connecting on 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) of its 3s.
Perry and Watson tied for game-high honors in scoring 15 points apiece. Jones added 13 points and a game-high eight rebounds, while sophomore guard Randy Davis rounded out the Cardinals' four scorers in double digits with 10 points.
Junior guard Marquis Weddle tied Watson and Perry with a team- and game-high 15 points to pace the Skyhawks.
With the win, the Cardinals (15-11) officially surpassed last season's win total.
Ball State returns to MAC play Wednesday as it plays host to Eastern Michigan University in its final home game of the regular season. The Cardinals look to avenge a 57-53 loss to the Eagles in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Jan. 23.