Ball State came into its Wednesday night matchup at Northern Illinois with heads high and confidence beaming down the bench. The Cardinals snapped Central Michigan's undefeated streak in Mid-American Conference play on Saturday and punched their ticket to Cleveland next week.
Two games were left for Ball State against two teams they had already defeated: 10th place Northern Illinois and fifth place Western Michigan. That confidence and pride followed the Cardinals all the way up to tip-off. However, to head coach Brady Sallee, he was doing as much as he could to get that team out of that mindset.
"They wanted to feel good and they wanted this to be an easier game and it just can't happen," Sallee said. "I could tell before the game that's how we were thinking. I was trying to talk them out of it, but sometimes you got to learn tough lessons."
In its first game of March, Ball State Women's Basketball (20-9, 12-5 MAC) got a sour taste of "March basketball" as Northern Illinois (10-18, 6-11 MAC) routed the Cardinals 70-62. Sallee said it came down to overall toughness, something that can't be dictated by numbers and rankings.
"Northern was tougher and more aggressive," Sallee said. "In college basketball, especially in March, those teams win no matter what their record is or what our record is. You're not gifted wins. They played like they wanted this win and were tougher and more aggressive then we were."
While Ball State has had a bounce-back season, there are still things to learn for this young squad. Made up of nine underclassmen, this is the first time some of these players are getting experience playing atop the MAC. Even with one game left in the regular season, Sallee says that there are still lessons to be learned.
"This is a great learning situation here because records don't matter this time of year," Sallee said. "We still got another game left against Western and we're going to get the same thing against them. They're still playing for seeding and home court. Then we get up into Cleveland and for the most part, were going to be a top seed and you're going to have everybody gunning for you."
While a younger core is still learning about holding their own late in the season and on top of the standings, veteran leadership continues to stay consistent. Junior forward Oshlynn Brown picked up a double-double, knocking down 20 points and racking up 13 rebounds. Graduate student guard Jasmin Samz followed with 12 points, three rebounds, three assists, and three steals.
The race to Cleveland is still wide open with only one game left until the first round of the tournament begins. Ohio, who looked like a shoo-in last week, is battling with Western Michigan for the final BYE in the tournament. Meanwhile, Kent State went on a run to clinch a first-round BYE on Wednesday night.
The Cardinals have built themselves enough of a cushion to hold down second place after the loss to Northern, however, Western is still not 100 percent guaranteed a BYW in the tournament. These games against lower seeds aren't ones that are going to challenge the Cardinals on paper but in their own heads.
"You gotta be a mature and mentally tough team to escape the trap games," Sallee said. "It could've been better. What every player in America wants, but won't admit is they want this game to be easy. It just never is."
After a shootout in February in Muncie, it wasn't a surprise that both teams were neck and neck through the first two-quarters of play. However, Northern pulled away off of a nearly identical performance to Brown from Courtney Woods, who finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds. She had support from Myia Starks, who had 15 points and shot 78 percent from the foul line.
The Cardinals managed to make a comeback to pull within as little as three points in the fourth quarter, but the consistent pressure and toughness the Huskies brought to the court stunned any sort of Ball State comeback. Northern shot 7 percent higher than the Cardinals from the field on the night, which can be pinpointed to a 46 percent shooting performance in the second quarter.
Wednesday's loss is one that Sallee believes was important to experience and learn from. In the late season, he said that it's better to stumble to these lower-seeded teams now because in the tournament there won't be a chance to rebound.
"The good news is in the regular season you get to play the next one," Sallee said. "Up in Cleveland, if you have one of those, you go home. You just got to understand the gravity of this time of year. However, I'm still excited about where my team is."