MEN'S BASKETBALL: Ball State falls in season opener to Indiana State

Jesse Berry, a senior guard, goes up to shoot a three against Marian University on Nov. 4 at Worthen Arena. Berry scored nine points. DN PHOTO BREANNA DAUGHERTY
Jesse Berry, a senior guard, goes up to shoot a three against Marian University on Nov. 4 at Worthen Arena. Berry scored nine points. DN PHOTO BREANNA DAUGHERTY

The overused sports cliché “moral victory” garners eye rolls and is usually a cop-out for a losing team. But as trite as it sounds, that’s exactly what Ball State’s 73-82 loss to Indiana State University was.

The James Whitford era at Ball State started with a defeat, but showed glimmers of potency in a game the Cardinals never led.

“There aren’t many teams in the country that have improved more in the last five days than we have,” the head coach said.

After a shaky performance against an NAIA opponent Monday, in which Ball State squeaked by Marian 62-59, playing a team — honoring its most famous alumni on Larry Bird Day — picked second in the bracket buster-laden Missouri Valley Conference seemed like a tall order.

But the same frantic looking Cardinals that were stifled and stripped in the exhibition game, seemed to look more fluid and in control.

Indiana State head coach Greg Lansing said that he and his team made a concerted effort to double team Ball State’s all-conference big man Majok Majok — something Majok should be prepared for every game this season. With Majok being consistently harassed from backside pressure, Ball State’s backcourt was thrust into the vocal point of the offense.

Majok’s efficient passes out of the post led to good looks for Ball State, but the looming question of who will knock down outside shots for the Cardinals appeared again. Outside of starting guards Jesse Berry and Zavier Turner, Ball State was only 1-4 from behind the arc — Chris Bond attempted the third most three-pointers (1-3) after never making one in his first three collegiate seasons.

Berry and Turner combined for more than half of Ball State’s points (Berry 23, Turner 17). The senior-freshman tandem proved they can knock down shots when the offense stalls, but play they’re best in transition.

“That’s our style,” Whitford said. “We want to be like Oregon in football. It’s not just playing fast that makes them good, it’s that they play fast and execute very well.”

With an even 14-14 assist-to-turnover ratio, Ball State’s efficiency still has room for improvement, but Ball State’s 53 percent shooting from the field demonstrates the better looks the Cardinals are starting to generate.

Defensively, all week Whitford and his staff preached keeping Indiana State’s Dawon Cummings off the three-point line and Jake Odum off the foul line. Ball State was unable to do either, as Cummings went 6-8 from three — going 5-5 in the first half, all in front of Larry Bird. Cummings joked, “he must have rubbed off on me” — and Odum went 10-11 from the line.

“They ran their sets to a ‘T,’” Turner said.

Indiana State came up with timely baskets time and time again. Several times in the second half Ball State mounted six to eight point runs to close the deficit to single digits — climbing within six with nine minutes remaining.

With Ball State down seven and seemingly having enough momentum to push the comeback effort over the top, Turner went down with an ankle injury.

As Turner limped off the court, Indiana State staved off the last real Ball State comeback, going up by 11 before Turner could return.

“I really couldn’t feel [my ankle] because [the trainer] wrapped it so tight,” Turner said.

Turner grimaced his way through the last five minutes of the game, showing the “heart of a lion” Whitford said he loved, and was still noticeably limping leaving the press conference.

Although it wasn’t the result Ball State wanted in Whitford’s first game as a head coach, the emphasis is still getting over the learning curve and reaching the team’s potential.

“It’s ‘getting better’ week,” Whitford said. “And that’s from now until April.”