Ball State Men’s Basketball (0-1) started off its 100th season with a 74-73 loss to Northern Kentucky (1-0), and it mirrored what happened almost exactly a year ago — a lot of missed free throws and a close game.
Last season when the Cardinals played the Norse, Ball State shot 34.6 percent from the charity stripe. While Wednesday night was better, they still shot 52.4 percent from the line.
The problem wasn’t just missing shots. Head coach James Whitford attributed part of the issue to not rebounding at the free-throw line. Ball State allowed 20 offensive rebounds which led to 23 second-chance points.
“What really cost us here was on the glass, especially on free throws and then not making our own free throws,” Whitford said. “It’s kind of like last year.”
Despite losing and some of the fundamental issues on the glass and at the free-throw line, Whitford said he is pleased with the direction the team is going. The Cardinals didn’t have film prior to the game and had to make adjustments on the fly. This made it difficult for Ball State to come up with a definitive plan to take down the Norse.
“It was a hard game for us defensively because we didn’t know anything about these guys coming in,” Whitford said. “There was no film at all, and they started a different lineup than we were expecting. It is true both ways but they had a lot more new faces than us.”
Despite not having film, redshirt fifth-year guard K.J. Walton had a career-high 28 points and led the team with 11 rebounds. Whitford said Walton felt comfortable playing against Northern Kentucky’s zone defense.
“These are the types of games that are good for him because they played in a zone [defense],” Whitford said. “He was able to get the ball in and around the basket a ton. I thought the guys did a great job of looking for him. He is such a good athlete. He does that. He lets the game come to him, and this game required him to have a big role.”
Walton echoed Whitford's words about letting the game come to him and knew he had to come out early and try to find a rhythm while taking advantage of Northern Kentucky's defense.
“They kind of played a weird defense,” Walton said. “I was trying to find spots and play transition. I tried to get to the line and tried to get a rhythm early and find the weak points in the defense.”
The Cardinals were also led by senior guard Ishmael El-Amin who had 15 points, four steals and three assists. He said the success he and Walton had stem from their IQ and them knowing each other’s tendencies.
“It has a lot to do with his IQ and my IQ,” El-Amin said. “I think we both understand the game very well. I am able to read what he is doing two plays ahead, and I am sure he can do the same for me. It makes it a lot easier knowing I have somebody that is behind me that I know will have my back.”
In spite of them both having positive performances, El-Amin knows he needs to clean up his turnovers and play a more fundamentally sound game. El-Amin had four giveaways. The Cardinals committed nine turnovers as a team, with seven coming in the second half. El-Amin attributed that to fatigue and still shaking off the rust.
“I think a lot of our turnovers came with fatigue,” El-Amin said. “One was forced and one I just lost the ball and it slipped out of my hand. We just have to take care of the ball at the end of the day.”
The game came down to the final buzzer. After the Norse hit a three-pointer with 22 seconds left in the game to put them up 74-73, Ball State had a chance to win it, but redshirt sophomore guard Kani Acree missed a three at the final second.
Despite the loss, Whitford is just excited to be back to coaching basketball and having his team play.
“I thought it was a great game,” Whitford said. “I thought it was great to be playing. We are thankful to have a chance to be out here on the court.”
Contact Ian Hansen with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @ianh_2.