Over the course of the past three games, the Cardinals have held their opponents to an average of 57 points per game. Redshirt senior forward Tahjai Teague has been the leading force on defense in this winning stretch. In Tuesday’s 88-68 conference victory against Buffalo, Ball State used that same recipe for success that has worked in the past: Stop the opponent on defense to create open looks on offense.
The stage was set up for Ball State — defend the team that averages the second-most points in the Mid-American Conference. The Cardinals knew their defense had been steady all season, holding opponents to 60.9 points per contest. Tuesday marked just the third time Buffalo has been held to 68 points or fewer. The Bulls are now 0-3 when not eclipsing the 70-point mark.
“When they started to make runs, we answered, especially defensively,” head coach James Whitford said. “We played well tonight, and there are things that we should take pride in that. There are things that we could’ve done better, and we will learn from that.”
Teague, who hadn’t left the scoring column at all this season, made a grand reappearance to double-digit scoring with a 25-point performance against the Bulls. While also grabbing nine rebounds and three steals, Teague used that poise and presence throughout the remainder of the contest. Connecting on 11-of-16 attempts from the field, Teague collected his points quickly. He also collected two 3-point baskets, something he has only accomplished seven times this season.
“Tahjai got going on offense, and that really helped. I thought it helped his confidence and the team's confidence. It helped everybody,” Whitford said. “We have to be able to play through both moments. You can’t be a team that only plays well when you make a couple of shots and you get your confidence rolling. You got to be able to do it when you’re down, 18-5, when the ball goes in early and you have to have a mature approach as a player and recognize that it is a long game.”
In the previous two contests, Teague had only posted a total of 13 points combined. In those games, his defense was the stat that stood out. Averaging two blocks and two steals in those games, it would only be fitting for him to carry that over in the game against Buffalo. Teague was a force to be reckoned with in the post against the Bulls.
“Turning defense into offense is the best way to score in basketball,” Teague said. “I feel like we are one of the best teams in the MAC in transition. As long as we can get out and run, we have shooters.”
The team leader in rebounds averages 7.9 boards per contest, and 5.8 of those come on the defensive side of the ball. This allows the Cardinals to run in transition and get points quickly on the offensive side of the ball. Against Buffalo, Teague collected all nine of his rebounds on the defensive glass. That led to Ball State scoring 13 points off of fast-break opportunities.
“[Tahjai] can score on all different parts of the court. When he is making shots, it makes a big difference because he can drive the ball,” Whitford said. “Him scoring in the low post is a big part of it for us and for him to be able to score down there. He scored at every level tonight, so it was great to see.”
Teague is in the top 10 in the conference in blocked shots and steals. Averaging 1.4 blocks per game, that puts him in third in the conference behind Kent State’s Danny Pippen and the leader, Luke Knapke of Toledo, who averages 2.6 per contest. Teague also averages 1.7 steals per game, good enough for ninth in the conference.