Junior guard Ishmael El-Amin walks to the locker room with Head Coach James Whitford at halftime Jan. 7, 2020, at John E. Worthen arena. Ball State beat Buffalo 88-68. Jacob Musselman, DN
All-around performance leads Cardinals past defending MAC Champions
Buffalo (9-6, 0-2 MAC) has had Ball State Men’s Basketball’s (9-6, 2-0 MAC) number since 2017. Tuesday night was different. The Cardinals defeated the Bulls, 88-68, and remain undefeated in Mid-American Conference play.
Buffalo has won the MAC the last two seasons. This win, along with Ball State’s victory over reigning MAC West Division Champion Toledo Jan. 3, has head coach James Whitford stressing the importance of his team’s performance.
“It’s a big deal,” Whitford said. “It is particularly a big deal because we started at home, and we have given up some of these at home and now we are getting ready to play four out of five on the road. We have a difficult stretch, so because of that, it is very important.”
Ball State had contribution from the beginning, as redshirt senior forward Tahjai Teague, who scored five points last game, immediately made a positive impact, scoring eight of the Cardinals’ first 13 points. He finished with a game-high 25 points, nine rebounds and three steals.
The team as a whole shot 47 percent from the field and 37 percent from three. Whitford gave props to the team for taking what Buffalo gave it and making the difficult shots.
“I told them I was really proud of them,” Whitford said. “We played a good game, and it was one of those games where we were clicking on a lot of levels, and we made a lot of shots when there were stretches when Buffalo defended really well and we made hard shots.”
On the defensive end, the Cardinals held Buffalo, who shoots 34 percent from three, to 16 percent. Junior guard Ishmael El-Amin gave credit to the team for just hitting more shots and not letting the pace affect the way it played.
“We just had it going,” El-Amin said. “Everybody was hitting shots, and we didn’t let their pace kill us like previous years and we just made more shots tonight. Then, we defended well tonight, and a lot of them didn’t shoot the ball well tonight, so our defense has just been on point.”
Whitford said he was proud of the way the Cardinals defended in transition and gave credit to the bigs, Teague and redshirt junior forward Brachen Hazen, for being the anchors on defense.
“The stories of the game to me were us defending,” Whitford said. “Our transition defense was very good. I thought our bigs did a very good job of defending without fouling. Tahjai, Brachen — I thought when they got in there, they played big and played vertically.”
Another area which Whitford attributed to the win was taking care of the ball, as the Cardinals had just seven turnovers on the night. Ball State forced 14 turnovers of their own and scored 13 points off of them.
“If you turn the ball over against Buffalo, it’s a layup at the other end so fast, and for us to be able to flip it and keep the turnovers at seven was a big part of the story tonight,” Whitford said.
Redshirt senior guard K.J. Walton has been dealing with an ankle injury. He contributed nine points and grabbed five rebounds, but it wasn’t his stats that stood out to him. Rather, it was the hustle plays.
“That is what I try to do,” Walton said. “Some people have to sacrifice and make hustle plays, and I just try to take advantage of that, and they did not rebound offensively that well, so I tried to take advantage of that and get boards.”
The Cardinals were also led by senior forward Kyle Mallers. He and El-Amin both scored 11 points. Redshirt senior guard Josh Thompson and redshirt freshman guard Jarron Coleman led the way in assists with five each.
Ball State travels to Akron Friday, for a 7 p.m. game to begin a two-game road trip. Whitford said he wants the team to stay focused and not get too high on this win.
“Like I always say, it is the team that can do it over the course of 18 games,” Whitford said. “We have got to come down from this one and get ourselves back up to play Akron because they are very good.”