Through the Cardinals' last five games, the winner hasn't been decided in the final seconds nor have they dominated the entire game. Only a few of Ball State's games have come down to the final possession, but these past five games its been the space between the last five and two minutes where the game has been decided.
After coming up short in the final stretch against Bowling Green and Western Michigan, a huge 26-6 run in the final 10 minutes against Eastern Michigan (15-12, 5-9 MAC) gave Ball State Men's Basketball (15-12, 8-6 MAC) the edge it needed for a 64-55 win over the Eagles. The Cardinals are now 3-2 in their last five meetings against the Eastern.
"It was a tale of two halves for us, but it was a great win and I'm proud of our team," head coach James Whitford said. "Eastern's playing really well right now and we knew coming into this that it was going to be a hard game. I thought our guys showed great composure and didn't panic when the first half went like it did."
In that first half, Eastern proved why they are ranked as one of the most successful defensive teams in the Mid-American Conference. The Eagles would pick up eight steals and knock down 14 points off of 12 turnovers. Eastern would dominate in the paint as well, outscoring Ball State 28-4.
The Eagles were led off by their 7-foot center Boubacar Toure, who finished with a team-high 16 points and eight rebounds. As Toure continued to roll early in the second half, his words towards the Cardinals fired up the team. Redshirt freshman guard Jarron Coleman said Toure's talking got redshirt senior forward Tahjai Teague going and eventually saw the Ball State defense step up.
"We saw a lot more consistency within our defense in the second half," Coleman said. "Tahj is a defensive leader for us, so when he gets going, everybody else gets into the running."
Down by 11, a 3-ball from junior guard Ishmael El-Amin sparked a run for the Cardinals. As the clock continued to wind down, shots from deep began to fall. Freshman guard Luke Bumbalough would hit back-to-back 3's, tying the game at 49. Two minutes later, up by only one, senior forward Kyle Mallers shot from the corner would spin in, giving Ball State a two-possession lead.
"We've really been working on staying composed down the stretch," Bumbalough said. "We've been really working through our defense. Yeah, we hit shots, but I feel like they [Eastern Michigan] didn't score down the stretch. Tahj just had a lot of energy around the rim and we fed off of that."
Intensity and energy is something that the Cardinals have been keying into lately, specifically on the defensive end. That window right before the two-minute warning is where Ball State has aimed to flex that intensity and energy the most. It's not exactly buzzer beater basketball, but it's very close to it.
"It's been a little bit of a funny thing for us in close games," Whitford said. "We haven't had that many that have come down to legitimately one possession. A lot of our close games are coming down to the final two or three minutes where you're still playing your normal game scenario. It's more about getting a little bit better."
Getting better and taking it one game at a time is something that's benefited that team this year. After a defensive breakdown against Buffalo on Tuesday, Whitford said the team found improvement in its defensive intensity and consistency today.
"The thing I love about my team is that we have a bunch of good guys on the team and we're not dealing with any issues inside the locker room," Whitford said as he knocks on the table. "They all want to do well, they're trying hard to do well and they're supporting each other. Yet, even when you're trying, you're not always clicking at your best. Tonight, our defensive intensity was right."
With four games left before the start of the MAC Tournament, Ball State has a lot hanging in the balances. The Cardinals are battling Northern Illinois for the final BYE in the MAC Tournament and are 2-2 against their final opponents this season. However, the Cardinals aren't letting the tight race get into their heads.
"We're just taking it one game at a time," Bumbalough said. "Coming to practice, being ready to practice every day and not looking too far ahead to the tournament or the next game. We're just going to keep playing hard and finish out."