"We could be 5-0."
It's an issue Ball State head coach James Whitford has seen throughout the season but didn't want it to get into his team's head. However, after going 9-for-26 at the line in a 59-57 Ball State (3-2, 0-0 MAC) loss to Northern Kentucky (4-1, 0-0 Horizon), the team's free-throw shooting woes have now become a real problem.
"I tried not to make a big deal of it because we chart them all in practice, and we're shooting 85 percent as a team," Whitford said. "I haven't tried to make it a mental thing, but at this stage of the game, we need to address it. When we went to Evansville, we shot 6-for-15, and tonight we went 9-for-26. If we make free throws in both those games, we could be sitting here at 5-0."
Those who came to the line on the night had a strong past of hitting their shots. Redshirt senior guard K.J. Walton, who is 67 percent at the line, went 4-for-11 on the night after going 8-for-8 against Indiana State Sunday. Redshirt senior forward Tahaji Teague, who is 63 percent at the line, went 0-for-3 at the charity stripe.
In its past four games, Ball State has shot 55 percent at the line compared to its opponents' 64 percent. In their first four games, the Cardinals didn't break into double digits at the line until sinking 17-of-24 against Indiana State. Whitford said this is a concern, but he believes it's going to get better.
"I'm confident we'll do better over the course of the year, but in particular from the foul line, we're off to a slow start," Whitford said.
Alongside their free throw shooting woes, the Cardinals lost two of their top four scorers in the final two minutes of the game. After sinking a layup to put Ball State within one with two minutes left, Walton would go down, spraining his ankle, and eventually be carried off the court. He finished with 12 points and nine rebounds.
In the final 30 seconds of the game, Teague drew his fifth foul and was forced to sit. The forward finished with his second straight double-double, picking up 10 points and 12 rebounds for the cardinal and white. While the two sat, the team still felt confident about who was on the court.
"We all have confidence in each other," junior guard Ishmael El-Amin said. "If somebody goes down with foul trouble or gets hurt, the next person steps up. Fortunately, they both went out in the last couple of minutes, so it didn't hurt us as much as it did. We always have to be ready to step up."
The Cardinals once again continued a trend no one on the team can really explain: 3-point shooting. Ball State again shot poorly in the first half, going 0-for-9 from downtown but downed four shots from outside the arc in the second half.
"It's really hard for me to explain," Whitford said. "We're like last in the country in 3-point shooting in the first half and legitimately first in the country in the second half. We're shooting 5 percent from the 3-point line in the first half and 50 percent in the second half. I can't explain that."
For the past two games, one player that has sparked the shooting is senior forward Kyle Mallers. Wednesday, he hit all four of Ball State's 3-point shots in the second half. This past Sunday against Indiana State, Mallers went 2-for-5 from deep.
"I think NKU switched up their defense a little bit, which allowed us to get some open looks," Mallers said. "It was good to see the ball fall in the second half."
Throughout the matchup, the game stayed close throughout. Both teams exchanged the lead, and no one really jumped out too far. However, the turning point came after the Norse went on a 7-0 run to pull within one point halfway through the second half. Another 5-0 run by Northern Kentucky would see it tie the game at 45. From then on, Ball State began to play catch up, as the Norse slowly pushed their lead to two possessions.
Ball State had a handful of chances to tie or take the lead in the final stretch, but free throws continued to prevent that. In the final three minutes, Ball State went 3-for-9 at the line, forcing a handful of desperation attempts.
"I think our effort was there at the end," El-Amin said. "We did the things we could, but we could've done a few things better. It's just a tough game."
In the loss, Ball State was led in scoring by Mallers (12), Walton (12), El-Amin (12) and Teague (10). Dantez Walton was a standout for the Norse, as he downed 18 points and tied Trevon Faulkner and Paul Djoko in boards with six.
Ball State faces Howard Saturday at Worthen Arena.