"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference."
Ball State head coach James Whitford referred to those exact words after No. 8 Ball State's (10-13, 8-10 MAC) 91-89 quarterfinal loss to No. 1 Toledo (21-7, 16-4) Thursday afternoon. Following a season full of uncertainty and hope, which saw three of the Cardinals' games postponed due to COVID-19 concerns, Ball State was eliminated from the Mid-American Conference Tournament with the loss.
"It's been really frustrating because there's been a lot of things you just can't control, and you're trying to do things right," Whitford said. "You feel like you're doing things right, and you're getting penalized for it often, but I feel like there's a lot of valuable life lessons. To me, that's life."
Whitford said he believes the Cardinals were one of the MAC's premier teams the season despite the loss. Ball State had dealt with its share of injuries and absences over the season's first few months before the team's final few weeks leading up to the tournament. Whitford said the loss did not reflect how far the Cardinals had come since November.
"I think it would've been a lot different had we had this team for three months," Whitford said. "It's complicated, but I think it would be a very different feeling if we went through the year and beat ourselves, had attitude issues or some of the other things that allow you to not necessarily be the way you want to be year to year."
After falling behind by 10 points three minutes into the game, Ball State battled back and tied the game at 22 with eight minutes to go in the first half. However, the Rockets capitalized as much as they could and took a 41-34 lead into halftime.
Much of the back-and-forth action between both teams translated into the second half. Halfway through the final 20, though, the Rockets took a 53-50 lead and ran with it. Toledo had a 65-55 lead with just under five minutes left in the game until Ball State began showing its resilience.
With just under 30 seconds left in the game, redshirt senior Brachen Hazen shot 2 of 2 at the free-throw line to tie the game at 77 apiece. Toledo senior guard Marreon Jackson, though, followed that up with two points from the charity stripe of his own, as redshirt fifth-year guard K.J. Walton was ejected from the game with his fifth foul on the day.
The Rockets had the game in their hands with five seconds left on the clock. However, redshirt sophomore guard Jarron Coleman quickly drove to the basket and notched a buzzer-beating layup, sending the game to overtime.
"I was just working on winning the game," Coleman said. "It was a good shot, but it only continued the game — we didn't win it. I was onto the next five minutes trying to win it."
Tied 79-79, the Cardinals began overtime on a 5-0 run before the Rockets scored six straight. Toledo continued carrying its momentum the rest of the way and had a 91-88 lead in overtime's final minute, when sophomore guard Luke Bumbalough and senior guard Ishmael El-Amin missed back-to-back 3-point attempts to tie the game.
With five seconds left in overtime, redshirt junior forward Miryne Thomas shot 1 of 2 at the free-throw line — ultimately not enough for Ball State to come back and upset Toledo.
"If we had beaten Toledo, that's the story," Whitford said. "It's literally one possession or one free throw .... We just lost a really close one. It's difficult. I could go back my whole career — [with] these games at the end, you could remember every play for the next 12 years, 15 years or 18 years."
Whitford deemed Coleman, who scored a career-high 33 points, one of the game's positives despite the loss. As he continues his Cardinal career, Whitford said he only hopes Coleman will keep improving moving forward.
"I think [Coleman's] ceiling is a lot higher than what you would see in some games," Whitford said. "He's a really gifted player, and this is probably the best thing I could say about him: he's got a lot to work on. He really does, and that's a great compliment because he's a really good player."
With the win, No. 1 Toledo will face the winner of No. 5 Ohio vs. No. 4 Kent State. Whitford tipped his cap to the Rockets for a battle and said the game was as close as you could get between both teams.
"It's never easy to lose these games so close," Whitford said. "But, that's the nature of sports. We were really there, and our guys battled."