Although the seats in Worthen Arena have been emptier than usual this season, cheers reverberated throughout the building Tuesday night with a little more than four minutes to go in Ball State's final home game of 2020-21.
They weren't just because the Cardinals were en route to their third consecutive win. They were because the team's three senior players — guards Ishmael El-Amin and K.J. Walton and forward Brachen Hazen — had checked out of the game for the final time at home on senior night.
Coming off of a 100-65 win over the Eagles, El-Amin and Walton said Tuesday's game was probably the last time they would hit the hardwood at Worthen Arena. Along with Hazen, head coach James Whitford described the trio as "phenomenal human beings." He noted their impact throughout the Ball State community goes beyond the basketball court.
"They're just great people," Whitford said. "They're good athletes, they're good basketball players [and] they're really good people. They're gonna make great husbands, great dads, great athletes, great workers and professionals one day."
Walton, a sixth-year senior, scored a career-high 32 points in the win and added eight rebounds. The 6-foot-3 redshirt fifth year guard transferred from the University of Missouri in 2017 before sitting out the following season and making his Ball State debut in 2018-19. He began his career night with a pair of shots from the charity stripe and followed that up with a layup — all in the game's first few minutes.
Leading the Cardinals to their first 100+ point win since November 2019, Walton said the occasion of senior night made his career performance a little more special. However, he deemed the win as simply another stepping stone heading into the Mid-American Conference Tournament. The game was Walton's fifth straight notching double-digits.
"Considering it's the last game you're going to go play," Walton said, "[senior night] makes it special, but I think it makes it special that the whole team played great, to be honest."
Unlike many senior athletes, Walton has already obtained his degree. However, he has used his free time to take additional classes and pursue a career in real estate. Walton has lived in Muncie for nearly four years after two seasons with the Tigers — just more than 60 miles outside of his hometown of Indianapolis.
Whitford considered Walton "a great family person" and said the traits he's built with his family have translated to the court and locker room.
"He's a great family person," Whitford said. "He's got family he's really close to — he goes home and plays with his niece — and he's just a terrific human being."
Before the game, Whitford said he and his coaches were debating how to best use Walton against the Eagles. He said Eastern Michigan had regularly been a tough matchup for him, but he quickly took advantage of his ability to attack the basket early in the game. It gave him a favorable position the rest of the way.
"Because it was just so open, it wasn't going to be about passing," Whitford said. "It was going to be about driving the ball to the rim, and I thought K.J. did a really good job of attacking when he got in there."
Walton recognized the importance of his leadership in guiding the Cardinals to victory but said the team's chemistry and cohesiveness were more important than anything else.
"I could've had 10 points, and we would've won by that much," Walton said. "Like coach said, we were firing on all cylinders. I think our defense was good and our rebounding was good. When you go down the line, I think we played close to a perfect game."
El-Amin, who put up 13 points in Tuesday's game, said he considers Walton the best one-on-one player in the MAC. He said his performance was a testament to his work ethic both on and off the court.
"He has an all-around feel to the game," El-Amin said. "He's proven he [doesn't] need a 3-point shot — he's proven he can score 30 without it. Shit, hands down to him...He's the quiet guy, but he's a workhorse. He's one of the strongest guys on our team. He comes in and does it by example."
Along with El-Amin and Walton, redshirt senior forward Brachen Hazen played 21 minutes in Tuesday's game. He recorded a team-high 11 rebounds and put up four points. Whitford said he isn't sure whether Hazen will play an additional year but might have an idea after the team's trip to Cleveland for this year's MAC Tournament.
Regardless of where life takes El-Amin, Hazen and Walton following their final game, Whitford said, he plans to keep in touch with all three after they walk off the court for the last time in the cardinal and white.
"What you learn as a coach over the years is that I've been blessed to be a part of a lot of really successful teams and successful programs," Whitford said. "It's also the relationships, in the end, that will last you forever. These three will be in that category for me for a long time to come."