After Saturday’s 76-69 win against Western Michigan, head coach Brady Sallee had already shifted his focus to the Mid-American Conference Tournament.
“It'll be a sleepless night tonight, probably a sleepless night on Sunday, and probably again on Monday,” Sallee said.
The Cardinals first-round game of the 2021 Mid-American Conference Tournament is in Cleveland on Wednesday, March 10th at 6:30 p.m. Ball State (14-10, 12-8) enters as the No. 6 seed, with a game against No. 3 seed Ohio (13-7, 11-6 MAC).
Ohio ranks first in the MAC in total points per game with 78.5. The Cardinals are not far behind at 73.5, good for fifth in the conference. Both teams lean on experienced veterans on both ends of the floor.
For the Bobcats, that veteran is Cierra Hooks. The senior guard leads the conference in scoring with 26.1 points per contest. While she is atop of the conference in scoring, she also makes an impact on defense. She is the two-time reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year and averages a conference-high 3.3 steals per game.
For Ball State, its veteran is senior forward Oshlynn Brown. She enters the tournament averaging 19.3 points, which is the most by any forward in the conference. Her 12.4 rebounds per game rank first in the conference by any player.
“We split with them, they got the best of us, and we got the best of them, so I feel good about our group going up there,” Sallee said.
Each side stole a victory on the other's home floor in their head-to-head meetings during the season.
On Jan. 13, the Cardinals came back from a seven-point fourth-quarter deficit and forced overtime. In the extra period, Ball State pulled away and won 88-85.
Redshirt sophomore guard Anna Clephane scored a career-high 24 points in the victory. Brown also notched 21 points and 19 rebounds. Sallee believes the Cardinals have an advantage inside against the Bobcats and was pleased with their performance and execution on that night.
“We understood where our advantage was,” Sallee said. “We got the ball where it needed to go, which was inside.”
Despite Ball State's win, they turned the ball over a season-high 35 times. That trend would continue in the Feb. 10 matchup, with Ohio forcing the Cardinals to commit 22 turnovers in the Bobcats' 88-66 win.
Hooks fueled Ohio that evening with 22 points. She shot 6-for-14 from the field and went a perfect 8-for-8 line from the free-throw line. The Bobcats allowed Brown to score only 10 points and held her to 4-of-10 shooting.
“The matchup is important, but you have to go beat three good teams anyway,” Sallee said.
Junior guard Essence Booker did not play in either game due to a knee injury. She has since returned for the Cardinals and has scored eight, nine and 10 points off the bench in her three appearances.
Brown, who has enjoyed a historic senior season, said she feels like there is one more box to check off in her collegiate career.
“I feel like the only thing left to do is to make history this week for the second time in Ball State Women’s basketball history,” Brown said.
The winner of Ball State/Ohio will advance to the second round to play against the winner of Central Michigan/Northern Illinois on Thursday.