Whenever the Cardinals tried to catch up with the Bobcats, they couldn’t.
Down 11 points in the game’s opening minutes, the Cardinals (6-7, 4-4 MAC) found themselves in a hole they couldn’t dig out of, and they never reclaimed the lead. A quick Ohio (8-6, 4-4 MAC) start was the story of the game Saturday afternoon, defeating Ball State 85-77.
“I thought we hung in there and put ourselves in a position where we had a chance at the end of the game,” head coach James Whitford said. “[The Bobcats’] ability to get second-chance shots, the interior toughness of Ohio, overpowered us in the game.”
The Cardinals started three senior players — guards Ishmael El-Amin and K.J. Walton and forward Brachen Hazen — against the Bobcats Saturday, but Whitford said a lack of defensive consistency was the difference in allowing them to jump out early on.
“I thought the start we got was very disappointing,” Whitford said. “We weren’t communicating, we didn’t start the game talking on defense. [With] these seniors in the lineup, honestly, there’s no excuse for that.”
The game was originally scheduled for a 7 p.m. tipoff Friday. However, a power outage throughout the Athens, Ohio, area forced the Cardinals to wait until Saturday to complete their season series with the Bobcats. Ohio completed the season sweep of the Cardinals with the win, after previously defeating Ball State 78-68 Jan. 2.
Whitford said he believed playing a day late did not impact either team’s performance Saturday, attributing to the uncertainties of the coronavirus-abbreviated 2020-21 season.
Throughout the game, Ball State pressured Ohio as much as it could, narrowing its lead to as few as three points. However, the Bobcats never budged. Ohio junior guard Jason Preston was a stalwart for the Bobcats Saturday, recording just the second-ever triple double in school history (11 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds).
Despite his frustration with his team’s start, Whitford said he was satisfied with his team’s handling of Preston as the game progressed. Instead, it was Ohio’s performance in getting second-chance points that he felt was a difference maker between the two sides. Twenty-six of Ohio’s points were second-chance points, and the Bobcats added 17 offensive rebounds.
“We lost the game by eight…[Ohio] had 26 second chance points,” Whitford said. “That, at the end of the day, was the bigger thing."
El-Amin led Ball State’s offense with 21 points while also contributing four rebounds. The Cardinals shot 12 of 26 at the 3-point line, with eight of their 3-pointers coming from El-Amin (five) and sophomore guard Luke Bumbalough (three).
“Four turnovers is too many, but [El-Amin’s] five assists were good,” Whitford said. “I thought Teemu [Suokas] did a great job off the bench tonight, and he had four assists in 10 minutes. He really made a big difference in the game. Letting Ish get off the ball a little bit was a good thing.”
In his third game this season after missing time with a foot injury, redshirt sophomore guard Jarron Coleman recorded seven points. While Whitford described his return as gradual, he was pleased with his contributions.
“He looked the best he’s been, yet he’s still got a ways to go,” Whitford said. “He’s a much better player than he’s playing and yet, [I] felt this was the best he’s played. I think you’ll keep finding him moving in the right direction.”
Ball State returns to action Jan. 26 against Kent State in Worthen Arena at 7 p.m. Returning home for just the third time this month, Whitford emphasized his team’s defense as a major area of improvement as the season progresses.
“We need to become a more consistent team on the defensive side on the ball,” Whitford said. “That’s the biggest thing we need to make progress on.”