By all respects, Ball State and Toledo should've been a close game.
The Cardinals and Rockets were two of the hottest teams in the Mid-American Conference, winning three and four games in a row coming into the game, respectively. But Ball State (18-9, 9-5 MAC) took control of the Rockets (19-8, 11-3 MAC) for the second time this season, winning 99-71 in front of a season-high 4,824 at Worthen Arena.
From the 10-0 run at the beginning of the game to a 31-point lead late, the Cardinals maintained control of the game. The impressive 28-point win bodes one question: Does this victory over a team that has only lost to one other conference opponent make Ball State the hottest team in the MAC?
The four game win streak Ball State has put together is the third best of any MAC team this season. Buffalo won eight in a row to start conference play and Toledo went on a seven-game win streak before its loss to Ball State on Jan. 30.
"It's an interesting thing to watch because we were playing well through November, December and then we had a stretch where we weren't playing well," head coach James Whitford said. "We had adversity, you know, we lost Jontrell and that really changed our team a lot and then we lost Jeremie and that changed our team more.
"I feel like we're back to where we were. We've refound ourselves a little bit ... we've got to be able to attack you inside and play off of that and that's what we've done the last three or four games."
Ball State has now won five of its last six games and is putting up high point totals on the way. For a team that averages 72.8 points per game, the Cardinals have scored a minimum of 87 points in each of its last three games.
Leading the way tonight was junior Tayler Persons and freshman Ishmael El-Amin who had 18 points a piece. Not far behind was sophomore Tahjai Teague freshman Zach Gunn who each finished with 16. Both El-Amin and Gunn had career point totals in the win, a key for Saturday's success.
"We know how capable [the freshman] are of doing that," Persons said. "You can't really explain how big that is with those guys coming off the bench and doing that for us."
Overall, nine Cardinals found a basket and they seem having fun spreading the wealth. The entire team, not to mention most of Worthen Arena, got on their feet when freshman Tyler Leedy scored his first basket in the waning moments of the game.
That's been the attitude Ball State has adapted recently. And that attitude seems to be working.
"We're happy now when somebody else scores," Teague said. "Early in the season we were thinking, 'It's my turn.' Now we got away from that. Whoever's open or whoever has the weaker defender, we just want them to score."
Finding the open man has been the recipe of success recently and it worked again tonight. As a team, Ball State shot 50.8 from the floor and 47.4 from behind the arc. That combined with its 77.8 percent (28-36) from the free throw line, led to one of the Cardinals highest point totals of the season.
Ball State's 51 points in the first half was the fourth highest single half point total its had all season long, topped with a 48 point second half which is also among the highest point totals in that category.
"We're really coming together as a team now," El-Amin said. "Everybody is meshing, everyone is playing well now and we just want to see everybody do good. If everyone is doing good, we're playing better and at the end of the day, that's all we want."
The win doesn't do anything for the MAC standings for now, with Ball State remaining safely in third. The win does, however, give the Cardinals any tiebreaker over the Rockets after beating them for the second time this season.
Ball State returns to Worthen Arena on Feb. 20 to play Northern Illinois (11-15, 4-9 MAC).