“The Final Countdown” was blaring from the Convocation Center's speakers in DeKalb, Illinois, Tuesday night. This only meant one thing for Ball State Men’s Basketball (2-2, 1-0 MAC) — overtime.
Down by as many as eight points in the second half, Ball State snuck up on Northern Illinois when it could, but the Huskies simply wouldn’t budge.
It looked as if the Cardinals finally had the game in their hands when senior guard Ishmael El-Amin notched a 3-pointer in the game’s final seconds. However, Huskies’ junior center Adong Makuoi promptly followed that up with a layup — resulting in a 63-63 tie and an additional five minutes on the clock.
Despite their early issues, though, the Cardinals began overtime with a bang.
Redshirt junior forward Miryne Thomas sailed a 3-pointer. Then, El-Amin — who ended the first half with just one point off a free throw — dished one of his own. Ball State never looked back, earning a 79-70 comeback win over Northern Illinois (0-4, 0-1 MAC).
Ball State is now 6-2 in Mid-American Conference openers under head coach James Whitford. The matchup was the Cardinals’ earliest conference opener since 1979.
“We had a lot of grit and resilience when it mattered the most,” Whitford said. “The two most important games of our season before Christmas are [Northern Illinois] and Western Michigan. The [MAC] is always the most important, but I think that’s more true this year than ever before.”
While Whitford was pleased with his team’s second-half grit, it wasn’t all smooth sailing for Ball State early on. Between El-Amin’s initial struggles and shooting just 28 percent on first-half field-goal attempts, the Cardinals faced a 34-28 deficit heading into their locker room at halftime.
However, a 3-pointer from El-Amin early in the second half was a sign of things to come for the Cardinals in the second.
Struggling to find ground in the game’s first half, Whitford had a brief conversation with the senior guard at halftime. Whitford wanted to make sure he was in the right mindset heading into the final 20 minutes.
“Sometimes, you can play really frustrated, and it affects your decision-making,” Whitford said. “Ish has been there before — it’s not his first road win. He came back in the second half and some of the composure we have on offense really stemmed from him playing the right way.”
Shooting 7-of-11 on field-goal attempts in the second half, El-Amin led Ball State’s offense with 18 points, tied for the team lead with redshirt fifth-year guard K.J. Walton.
The game also marked a milestone for freshman guard Teemu Suokas. The first-ever European signee to play with Ball State, he notched his first points in the cardinal and white off a 3-pointer in the second half.
While El-Amin and Walton led the Cardinals’ offense, Whitford said he was impressed with his team’s all-around improvement. Thomas led the forward group with 13 points, adding on five rebounds.
“You started to see Miryne get in his rhythm today,” Whitford said. “He really struggled in the last game, and I think Kani [Acree] is in that same boat. We’re going to be a deeper team than what it looks like so far.”
Despite the win, foul trouble haunted the Cardinals at times, as nine of Ball State’s 11 players committed at least one foul. Junior guard Darius Beane and sophomore guard Trendon Hankerson were stalwarts for the Huskies’ offense, combining for 36 points.
Whitford, who said he watched the Huskies’ previous three games heading into the matchup, credited Northern Illinois’ performance and said by no means was this a perfect game for his team.
“This was by far the best [Northern Illinois] has played in my opinion,” Whitford said. “We’re getting better — we’ve got a ways to go like every team, but I like my team, and we’re moving in the right direction.”
The Cardinals return to action Saturday, Dec. 12, facing Illinois State at 7 p.m. in Worthen Arena.