Ball State guard Kyle Mallers shoots over a Kent State defender during the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals. Robby General, DN
In 'One of those games,' Ball State falls just short in MAC Tournament quarterfinals
Teams can have games where nothing seems to go their way. Loose balls and 50-50 balls consistently end up in the hands of the opponent, open shots are missed uncharacteristically and one play going differently could alter the course of the game.
Ball State men's basketball (19-13) found that out during its 76-73 loss to Kent State (17-16) in the Mid-American Conference Tournament quarterfinals.
"I thought it was a really hard-fought game, and I was really proud of my guys," head coach James Whitford said. "But we got down early in the game, and I thought we really battled. We put ourselves in position to win this game five, six, seven times, and it was one of those games where it was a play here or a play there."
The stat sheet told the story of a close game in which Ball State had the advantage in a multitude of categories like rebounding, turnovers, blocks, steals and bench points among other things. What the stats don't reflect, however, were Ball State's uncharacteristic misses on open shots, both at the rim and behind the 3-point line.
"We felt like we were playing the right way all game, like coach [Whitford] said," Tayler Persons said. "I couldn't be prouder of my team. I love playing with them. It's a tough loss for us. We battled through so much throughout this year and throughout this game.
"It's just a testament to who we are as a team. Balls bounced their way a little bit. We had our best shooter miss a wide-open three in crunch time. It's just the game of basketball and I just couldn't be prouder of my guys. We left it all out there."
The wide-open three Persons referred to came from a Sean Sellers attempt on a day in which he struggled from the floor. The senior guard went scoreless for the first time this season and missed a potential go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:34 remaining in the game. Sellers finished 0-5 from the floor in his 29 minutes.
That was the theme of the night for the Cardinals. With 10:55 remaining in the game and Ball State in the midst of trying to dig itself out of a hole, freshman forward Zach Gunn found himself all alone under the basket. A pass was delivered to him, and when he went up for what is usually an easy layup, the ball appeared to slip out of his hands along with a potential chance at two much-needed points for the Cardinals.
"I thought Zach [Gunn] played fine," Whitford said. "... He had back-to-back [possessions], a wide-open layup. The ball just slipped out of his hands. Then he had one of those steals where it's like he's running the ball in the open court, and it's not a role that he's comfortable in. ... All of a sudden the defense started catching up, and he kind of panicked a little bit and threw the ball out of bounds."
Another tough break for Ball State involving Gunn came around the 13 minute mark of the second half. Gunn had just knocked the ball loose from a Kent State player and went after it, but he was unable to secure it. Josh Thompson was there to dive for the loose ball but came up inches away as Kent State recovered the possession.
Despite those moments, Gunn was a bright spot for the Cardinals. The freshman knocked down five shots from behind the arc, including one that gave Ball State a brief lead with 2:28 remaining in the game. He received a standing ovation from Ball State's fans as he went to the bench after hitting four 3-pointers in the first half. Gunn finished with 15 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes.
Trey Moses had his own moment that could've turned the tide in the game. With 3:08 remaining and Ball State trailing by a point, Moses had an open look at a layup as he went down the lane but the ball appeared to slip out as it went hard off the glass, epitomizing the kind of night it was for the third-seeded Cardinals.
With Ball State's loss, the team will have to hope for a CIT or CBI berth to have a chance to reach 20 wins for the third consecutive season.