Tayler Persons dribbles past a Kent State defender during the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals. Robby General, DN
Ball State's MAC quarterfinal loss to Kent State characterizes season
It just wasn't meant to be.
After a final unsuccessful 3-point heave from junior center Trey Moses, Ball State dropped its Mid-American Conference quarterfinal game to Kent State, 76-73.
Ball State extended its season-high losing streak to four games. That's the simple way to put it, anyway.
Three of those losses, much like tonight, the Cardinals had a chance to win down the stretch, falling just short. This time it just happened to be a loss against the Golden Flashes, but its no different than most other games the Cardinals have played this season.
It's the same team that had buzzer-beating wins against Notre Dame, Valparaiso and Bowling Green.
It's the same team that lost in the final minutes against Dayton, Bucknell, Western Michigan and Northern Illinois.
Win or loss, despite a few roster changes and blowout losses, this team hasn't changed much -- only its perception of it.
"It's overly simplified to say we fell apart down the stretch with four straight losses. It's not that simple," Ball State head coach James Whitford said. "Three of the four games we actually played pretty well and we were just literally like one possession away. ...
"It's overly simplified to say, 'Boy, they were hot and it didn't work out well.' That wouldn't be the case in my opinion at all."
Ball State didn't necessarily play worse in its third meeting of the season against Kent State. On the stat sheet, the two teams production numbers are nearly identical, with Ball State shooting 37.7 percent from the floor and Kent State shooting 40 percent. A quick glance at every other statistic, the same can be said. In fact, Ball State held the advantage in several categories.
But throughout the entire night, even when Ball State led, it appeared to be playing from behind. Tiny errors like the ball slipping out of the hands of freshman Zach Gunn at the rim and numerous passes missing their intended targets were the difference maker in Ball State's 3-point loss to the reigning MAC Tournament champions.
"I felt like we got open shots, missed them," junior guard Tayler Persons said. "Sometimes they fall, sometimes they don't. But like I said, we gave it our all and that's all you can ask for from a team."
Persons gave the Cardinals some late hope. Down by nine points with just as many minutes to go, the All-MAC guard pushed the ball hard up the court three straight times, scoring on two of the occasions. His spark led to a Ball State scoring run that earned its first lead in over 15 minutes. With 2:28 left on the clock, Zach Gunn hit his fifth 3-pointer of the game, giving the Cardinals a 69-67 lead.
Before that 15-4 run, however, Gunn was taken out of the game for missing a wide-open layup and throwing away a pass. Making those mistakes on a national stage, Whitford wanted to take the freshman out of the game in order to get him composed. Before he reached his head coach, though, Persons grabbed his arm to give him a piece of advice.
"Just [focus on] the next play," Persons said. "That's been kind of my thing throughout my career that I learned, that you can't put your head down on one play and be sad about it."
That's been Persons all season, trying to uplift his teammates when mistakes are made. Earlier in the quarter, when Kyle Mallers didn't turn to see a pass, which ended up going out of bounds. Originally frustrated, Persons remained composed as Mallers walked by, high-fiving his teammate and moving on.
Going down 19-10 early in the game, Ball State never seemed to be able to recover. Even after going into the locker room tied at 39 points a piece, Kent State seemed to have all of the momentum. Although Kent State only saw scoring production from six players, four of them finished with 16 points or more.
Similarly, Ball State had four players finish in double digits, with junior Tayler Persons leading the way with 19, junior Tahjai Teague with 17, freshman Zach Gunn with 15 and Moses with 10. All of Gunn's production came from behind the 3-point line, where he made five shots on the night. Senior Sean Sellers finished with zero points for the first time this season.
Sitting at 19 wins on the season, Ball State may have a chance to play in an invitational tournament to try and reach its third consecutive 20-win season. Next year, however, Ball State will be adding several players without losing too much.
"You win as a team and you lose as a team," Whitford said. "We've got everybody that played in tonight's game except for Sean Sellers coming back. I feel like we can be here and be here for a long time."