Despite playing their first game in 10 days, the story of the Cardinals’ (7-10, 5-7 MAC) performance Tuesday night against Bowling Green (12-9, 8-7 MAC) was nothing but familiar to that of their losses against Miami (Ohio) and Buffalo these past few weeks.
Ball State took a 35-34 lead at halftime, but it was the final 20 minutes when head coach James Whitford compared his team’s performance to a deer in the headlights. Led by 27 points from graduate student guard Justin Turner, the Falcons defeated the Cardinals 75-62, splitting the season series.
“I thought [Bowling Green] played like a championship team,” Whitford said. “They were the tougher team physically, they were the tougher team mentally, and I thought they played a great game.”
With just four games remaining on Ball State’s 2020-21 slate right now, here are four takeaways from Tuesday night’s loss.
After missing Ball State’s last three games due to COVID-19 protocols, the Cardinals’ leading scorer was back in the lineup Tuesday night. Redshirt fifth year guard K.J. Walton made his presence felt, recording 11 points and a team-high eight rebounds.
While COVID-19 concerns called off Ball State’s last two games against Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, Whitford said Walton has been fully healthy since Feb. 9 and would’ve been cleared to play earlier if not for the postponements. Throughout practice last week, he said, he struggled to find a rhythm. But it was the matchup against Turner that gave him the confidence to start Walton for the first time in more than three weeks.
Although he led in his team in points and rebounds, Walton said Tuesday’s matchup was not fully indicative of his consistency on the hardwood. He said a difference in communication between the two halves was a major factor that played into the loss.
“It’s the little things that separate us,” Walton said. “Not only ball miscommunication but rebounding and toughness, [the Falcons] won it. Coach talked about the [communication] in the first half. I don’t know if it was that bad necessarily, but in the second half it showed.”
Redshirt junior forward Zach Gunn and sophomore guard Jalen Windham were also back on the sideline Tuesday night, but neither of them saw action.
Toughness is the difference
Like Walton alluded to, Whitford said the difference in the second half came down to a lack of one word: toughness.
“We got hit in the face,” Whitford said. “We didn’t respond to the adversity in the second half well. We were getting frustrated on the court with the whistles, feeling like we should’ve gotten a few more calls. We didn’t handle it, and I could say Bowling Green was the tougher team.”
Twenty-three turnovers also haunted the Cardinals throughout the game, with 12 of them coming in the second half. Another second-half difference was their woes in 3-point shooting, going just 1 of 12 from beyond the arc during the final 20.
“We could’ve handled [the game] better and should’ve handled it better,” Whitford said. “It’s not like we were off for 26 days. It’s nothing that we shouldn’t have been able to handle.”
Lack of pop
Shooting 13 of 29 on field-goal attempts, Whitford described his team’s offense as “choppy” Tuesday night. During pregame, he said, he emphasized his players to play like they’ve been practicing, but it didn’t necessarily translate come gameplay.
“I thought the ball stopped moving a lot,” Whitford said. “I think that’s the chemistry part of just not playing in nine days and having a new lineup again, that will sort itself out…We were in shock that they were making the run that they were. We didn’t handle the pressure well enough.”
Along with Turner, freshman guard Kaden Metheny was a driving force for the Falcons. He put down 21 points, including four 3-pointers.
Time is ticking
Ball State has just four more games remaining on its 2020-21 schedule before the Mid-American Conference Tournament in Cleveland March 11-13. Although the team has lost five of its last six, and is coming off a nine-day layoff, Whitford is confident his players can play better basketball down the stretch.
“We’d love to have this whole team together the whole year,” Whitford said. “We can’t, but that’s enough time to get us in rhythm, get these guys playing well together and it’s enough time for us to get to where we want to go. I think the one real question for us is, ‘Can we rebound and defend in and around the basket well enough?’”
Whitford said he has been in regular contact with the Mid-American Conference about adding an additional game before the tournament and wouldn’t mind playing a little extra basketball. Walton agreed with his coach.
“Everybody can play basketball at that level, where you want to be there,” Walton said. “It’s just kind of, mentally, who has it that night?”
Ball State will return to action Feb. 19 against Akron. Tipoff is 7 p.m.