With a first-round bye in the Mid-American Conference up for grabs and just three games left, Ball State Men’s Basketball (16-12, 9-6 MAC) needed a win. The Cardinals took down Western Michigan (11-17, 4-11) 71-61 to stay in a tie with Buffalo as the fourth seed. 

In the two team’s first meeting earlier in the month, Western Michigan took the win and shot 61 percent from the field. Tuesday night was different as head coach James Whitford praised the Cardinal’s toughness on defense and credited it to scoring the ball on offense. 

“I thought our defense was outstanding,” Whitford said. “These guys really wore us out in the first game in the post and I thought we really answered the bell in this one and I thought we really played through our defense.”

Ball State scored 26 points in transition and converted 21 points off of Broncos’ turnovers. The Cardinals’ had 40 points at the half and Whitford said a lot of that was because of the defense and Western Michigan missing shots. The Cardinals held Western Michigan to just 38 percent shooting on the night

“We had a lot of transition opportunities,” Whitford said. “They were missing shots and turning it over in the first half and that led the defense to turn into offense and that is why I think we had 40 at halftime.” 

The Cardinals were led by junior guard Ishmael El-Amin, who scored 21 points and had three steals to add to his night. Redshirt senior Tahjai Teague scored 13 points and grabbed 13 rebounds on the night. 

While Teague scored in double-figures, he is more proud of his defense and knows the team doesn’t need him to score the ball in order to win.

“I don’t feel like I need to score every night for us to win,” Teague said. “I was really focused on my defense so that is what I was most impressed with.”

Redshirt freshman guard, Jarron Coleman looks to blow by a defender against Western Michigan, Feb. 25, 2020, at John E. Worthen Arena. Coleman pitched in two points in the Cardinals win. Omari Smith, DN

In these two team’s first two meetings, The Broncos’ center, Titus Wright scored 13 points. On Tuesday night, Teague held Wright to zero points. The Cardinals’ made it an emphasis to perform better inside

“I feel like we were playing good defense,” Teague said. “Their big men went off on us in the first game against them so we made it a big emphasis. We were trying to play well on defense early and we are at our best when we are in transition.”

This was the first game since Jan. 28 against Bowling Green that Ball State has won the points in the paint battle. They scored 20 down low to the Broncos’ 16. Whitford was really proud of the interior defense. 

“If there was one thing I felt really good about, it was our interior defense,” Whitford said. “We got our head handed to us in the first game, but I thought our interior defense tonight was night and day different.”

Brandon Johnson scored 29 points in the first meeting between the two teams and had just 12 in this one and Whitford credited senior Kyle Mallers for his defense along with the rest of the team. 

“I thought Tahjai was on it defensively against Titus, who is a good player,” Whitford said. “I also thought Kyle did a great job tonight against Brandon Johnson. It has to be an entire team working together and I thought we were really on it.”

The Cardinals also won the rebounding battle 34-28 and Whitford talked about how the interior defense goes hand-in-hand with the rebounding. 

“I thought it was our interior toughness,” Whitford said. “If there is one thing you have to be really good at in my opinion, you have to be really good at defending at the rim. I thought we lost that a little and I thought we had that tonight. I thought our frontcourt play tonight was outstanding.” 

The Cardinals look to jump ahead in the standings Saturday as they travel to Toledo to play the Rockets. 

Contact Ian Hansen with comments at imhansen@bsu.edu or on Twitter @ianh_2.