After Ball State Men’s Basketball (1-2, 0-0 MAC) lost 85-64 to Michigan Dec. 2, head coach James Whitford knew the defense was a long way away from where it needed to be.
One game later, and Whitford said he is pleased with the improvements by the defense. The Cardinals beat Illinois at Chicago (3-1, 0-0 Horizon League) 68-66 and held the Flames to the lowest total of an opponent all season.
“I thought it was a good game for us,” Whitford said. “I thought we showed a lot of grit there down at the end. I thought our defense was way better. I told the team, ‘good win, and I think we got better.’”
Sixth-year senior guard K.J. Walton thought a lot of the improvements on defense came from how they handled the pick-and-roll.
“We were talking about [Teyvion] Kirk and the way we were going to handle the ball-screens,” Walton said. “Ultimately, we knew he was going to go over the screens, and we were just making it tough.”
Kirk is averaging 10 assists a game on pick-and-rolls and had just six assists in total Saturday. Whitford described the Flames' use of their guards in the pick-and-roll as 'abnormal.' He explained the reasoning for this was them trying to get the Cardinals’ best defender off of Teyvion Kirk.
Whitford also believes the Cardinals did a good job defending the pick-and-roll against the opposing big men as well.
“I thought our pick and roll defense was very good,” Whitford said. “It was a big step in the right direction from Michigan. We did really well on Braelen Bridges pick-and-rolls. We were on the same page. We were connected.”
Ball State had a lead through most of the first half and was up by as many as 16 points in the second half. The Flames gained momentum and took a three-point lead with four minutes left in the game.
“I thought we got rattled there on offense,” Whitford said. “They are a great defense. They are doing an outstanding job, and it wasn’t coming easy for us. I thought we had an eight or nine-minute stretch where I thought we lost our execution.”
Ball State shot 11.1 percent from deep in the game and 38.5 percent from the field. Despite this, they were able to get to the free-throw line 34 times and made 26 of them.
The Cardinals were led by senior guard Ishmael El-Amin and Walton. El-Amin had 22 points, six rebounds and four assists, and Walton ended the game with 25 points — his third straight game with 20 or more points.
El-Amin believes the duo of him and Walton was put in a great position late in the game to make clutch baskets and help the team win.
“It was late in the game, and we needed a bucket or two,” El-Amin said. “Right now K.J. [Walton] and I were put in a position to make those plays today.”
Ball State was down 57-54 with 3:39 left in the game and Walton hit a fadeaway two which gave the Cardinals the momentum they needed to close the game. Whitford talked about how that possession slowed down the process making it easier for them to execute. El-Amin hit four free-throws to put the game away.
“There was a huge possession,” Whitford said. “We were really patient. We tried very hard to break them down, and we didn’t. Then we had to make a play. In the final four minutes, we really re-gained our poise and composure on offense and executed.”
Whitford said the reasoning for the success late in the game ultimately came down to experience and channeling the emotions of a close game late. He believes Walton and El-Amin did a great job of that.
“Those guys are really experienced,” Whitford said. “It is really important in moments like that because there is a lot of game pressure out there. You are feeling a lot of emotions.”
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