As soon as he set foot inside the Convocation Center on Friday night, redshirt freshman guard Kani Acree couldn't be bothered. Eye's locked in, music blasting from his earphones and lips locked, he was ready for Ball States tilt against Northern Illinois.
"I was zoned in," Acree said. "I wasn't talking and music was in."
Amongst the many implications behind their game against Northern Illinois, in clinching a BYE into the Mid-American Conference Tournament and a MAC West Title, the game meant more for Acree. It was a homecoming of sorts, even though his home of Carbondale, Illinois was four hours south of DeKalb, Illinois.
Acree was facing his best friend Friday night on a game that mattered so much for both teams. Northern Illinois Darius Beane and Acree spent a lot of time together growing up, playing alongside each other at Carbondale Community High School before heading to rival conference schools, however, the two still are just as close.
"That's like my other half, man," Acree said. "We talk every day and that's just my brother."
This game meant so much to Acree in beating a close childhood friend and helping his team clinch a BYE to the tournament. With seven minutes passed in the game and the Cardinals up 12, Acree went in for a dunk only to be blocked by NIU's Trendon Hankerson. From there, his night would take a very different turn.
"I got the steal, saw an open lane and I looked back and I saw somebody coming," Acree said. "I knew I couldn't come in soft so I tried to dunk it and my knee just gave up on me. I felt it and I knew it wasn't good. I thought I messed it up.
Acree laid on the floor in pain as the Huskies would rebound the ball and take it down the court to cut Ball State's lead down to 10. Even after the play, it took a few minutes before the medical staff and coaches had to carry Acree off the court. To most people, he looked like he was done for the night, maybe even longer.
"I was really worried because he had a knee injury in high school," head coach James Whitford said. "All of our hearts skipped a beat just for him because you don't even want to see a kid go through that once, much less twice."
Heading back to the locker room, with his knee throbbing in pain, Acree said he didn't think he was coming back. However, after he was told that his ACL was ok and his meniscus was ok, that same drive he had at the beginning of the game switched back on. Fast forward to 15:56 left in the second half, after he was on the floor in face down in pain, Acree was checking in.
"I couldn't sit out this game," Acree said. "I'm going against my best friend and playing in front of his family. His family is really close to me and they took me in. That atmosphere and having to win to get a BYE. There was just so much going on a had to come back."
Returning back into the game, it looked like he hadn't missed a beat. In the same place, he had fallen less than an hour before, Acree was battling for defensive rebounds and toppling over defenders just to make the play. At the other end, Acree scored all eight of his points in his stretch back in the game.
His return was highlighted by a circus shot he threw up while getting fouled and running out of bounds that would eventually fall. He would follow that by sinking the extra point. Whitford said Acree's return and performance were great and spoke volumes of the team's bench performance on the night.
"He really showed a lot of toughness and our bench is playing really well," Whitford said. "I thought he [Acree] was great, I thought Josh [Thompson] was great, I thought Miryne [Thomas] was great. Our bench really gave us a huge spark in this game."
Ball States bench had an explosive performance Friday, outscoring the Huskies bench 26-9. Redshirt sophomore guard Miryne Thomas would tie his career-high in points with 14 and would complement that with five rebounds. Redshirt senior guard Josh Thompson would down a 3-ball on the night, to add to Ball State's 43 percent shooting on the night. Along with Acree's eight, he'd pick up five pulldowns and an assist.
With March officially starting a little under a week ago, the fast pace and aggressive play of "March basketball" has also shown it's self on the hardwood. As Acree would come off the floor and find himself on the scoreboard, he knew that he wanted to win this game for himself and his team.
"It's huge to get a win like this," Acree said. "Right now it's just bragging rights between me and him [Beane]. We're going to be doing this for three more years. For the team, I'm content in being that spark off the bench and being that guy they know what to expect of me when I come off the bench. Bringing the energy, hustle plays and bringing the guys closer."
After the Cardinals 75-54 win over the Huskies, the MAC Tournament bracket was set. While the only possibility of Northern Illinois and Ball State meeting again would happen in the Championship game, Acree said he's hoping he can face off with Beane one more time this season.
"I wish the best for them, but I definitely hope to see them again in the tournament," Acree said.