For the first time since defeating Kent State at the beginning of the month, Ball State had a sense of security heading into the final five minutes of the game.
The game wasn't neck and neck nor was Ball State in complete danger of sufficing its lead. In a 71-61 win over Western Michigan on Tuesday, the Cardinals held the lead for 98 percent of the game and limited Michael Flowers, one of the top scorers in the Mid-American Conference, to just two points. The key to Ball State's success, a complete defensive presence.
"There were a handful of times we left the guy, open and miscommunicated in the switch, but I thought a lot of times we were there," Whitford said. "I thought we defended really well. I thought they made a lot of shots, but I don't think they got a lot of good shots all night. I thought our defense was outstanding."
The defensive stand eventually lead to a strong offense for Ball State as they would outscore Western Michigan, 40-23 by the end of the first half. Defensive consistency is something the Cardinals have been harping on ever since their last meeting with the Broncos, resulting in a 68-64 loss. Junior guard Ishmael El-Amin said it's what guided that team tonight.
"Tonight's win really felt good because we played through our defense," El-Amin said. "The defense really made the offense easy for us and allowed other guys to contribute. It was a good win for us."
Ball State cruised from tip-off as they would eventually amount to a lead as large as 25. However, Whitford noticed that the team seemed to be too comfortable with the lead. While the point cushion was large enough to hold off a Bronco comeback, Western Michigan would shoot 8-12 from deep in the second half. 66 percent shooting from deep would cut Ball State's lead down to 10 by the final buzzer.
Whitford said it's really the only negative that he could pull out of the game for his team, but he stressed the importance of how every possession matters.
"I wished we finished the game better than we did," Whitford said. "We didn't play like a mature team in the second half and that was the one thing I was disappointed in. I didn't like the turnovers in the lead, but I can live with a guy playing the right way and making mistakes. There were moments where we were playing like a team who was up 15 and not valuing every possession."
Among the one blip, Ball State walks away with a comfortable win heading into its final three games of the regular season. With the MAC Tournament less than two weeks away, games continue to get tighter and more competitive amongst every team. Ball State was assessed two technical fouls and Western Michigan one in Tuesday nights matchup.
In the final stretch for Ball State, a lot of their competitors are playing for similar things. Toledo and Central Michigan are trying to hold on to home-court advantage in the MAC Tournament first round. Meanwhile, Northern Illinois is looking for security for a BYE into the Tournament and push Ball State out of contention for a MAC West title.
The players know it. The coaches know it. The refs know it. The season is coming to a close in the MAC and every team has something at stake. Tuesday for Ball State, they were aware of who was on the court and that they were going to compete.
"A lot of these games were going into we've already played the team we're facing," El-Amin said. "We're familiar with the other team's good players and stuff like that. I think it just comes with the game."