“I’m excited for what I just saw out of this basketball team.”

Fans should be able to agree with Ball State head coach Brady Sallee after a back-and-forth contest between two Indiana schools went all the way to the final buzzer. 

The Cardinals (3-2, 0-0 MAC) were down but never out, as they completed the come-from-behind victory to hand Butler (4-1, 0-0 Big East) its first loss of the season, 74-70.

Ball State battled throughout the contest, even when it faced a double-digit deficit. Sallee said his players’ effort was a key factor.

“I asked for toughness before the game because I knew Butler was going to bring it and we knew how good they were, and our kids answered multiple times,” Sallee said.

It was a game of runs, and the Cardinals made the first move, as they put together a successful quarter to start the game. The Ball State defense was active, closing out on shooters and pressuring the Bulldogs to disrupt their rhythm. Butler shot 27.8 percent from the field to open the game. 

On the offensive end, the Cardinals were aggressive, attacking the rim at will, which led to them getting to the free-throw line. They capitalized on their opportunities, making 11-of-12 from the charity stripe in the first frame alone.

Ball State held a commanding 25-14 lead to start the second quarter, but Butler flipped the switch, making it rain from deep and knocking down five 3-point shots in the quarter. The Bulldogs went on a 16-0 run, which gave them a 30-25 lead. Ball State answered with a short scoring spurt, evening the score, but Butler cashed in on another double-digit run at the end of the quarter to give it a 42-34 lead at the break. 

“Our lack of toughness [in the first half] got us in a deficient, led to too many turnovers and led to the rebound disparity not being what it should’ve been,” Sallee said.    

Ball State freshman guard Estel Puiggros shoots a three during the Cardinals' game against Butler Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, at John E. Worthen Arena. Puiggros scored 10 points. Paige Grider, DN

The Cardinals came out of the locker room after halftime looking like a completely different team. Their ball movement was on point, leading to easy buckets inside and out. The Cardinals started the quarter making their first three from behind the arc, which helped tie the game at 47. 

“We just kept fighting and making plays,” Sallee said. “A lot of people stepped up … and the toughness was there in spades today.”

Butler closed out the third quarter with a 12-2 run, but the Cardinals fought back. In the fourth quarter, Ball State went on its own 12-2 run and continued to make big plays throughout, outscoring the Bulldogs, 25-11, which was enough to come out on top. 

“We said for the last week we had goals: defense, rebounds, discipline and toughness. You truly saw it in the fourth quarter — we had all of those goals,” graduate student guard Jasmin Samz said. “We put it together as a team and was the tougher team for 10 minutes, and we finally showed what we are going to be. We are only going to get better, stronger and improve more offensively and defensively.”

Free throws and rebounds were the deciding factor when it came down to the wire, and the Cardinals showed resilience and profited off of both. Ball State outrebounded Butler, 15-9, in the fourth quarter. None were bigger than sophomore forward Thelma Dis Agustsdottir’s offensive board off a missed free throw with 26 second left, which led to Samz closing the game by making two free throws.

Ball State finished the contest making 23-of-30 from the free-throw line. 

“We’ve been in the gym shooting them, and I don’t usually have them shoot them in practice,” Sallee said. “But we have been, and that’s what we have put into for making free throws and they know we have to do it.”

The Cardinals will take the court again 4 p.m. Thursday against Lehigh to begin their play in the Bahamas Hoopfest.

Contact Daric Clemens with comments at diclemens@bsu.edu or on Twitter @DaricClemens