In each game of the Jersey Mike’s Classic in St. Petersburg Florida, head coach James Whitford and the rest of Ball State Men’s Basketball (2-3) felt they got better in all three games.
While they went 1-2 during the weekend, they ended with a win and got to play three different teams with three different playstyles.
Ball State: 60
Florida International University: 73
Despite losing by double figures, Whitford said it was a close game until the final 10 minutes. He said they need to do a better job of finishing. The Panthers (5-1) ended the first half with a 7-0 run and went on a 13-0 run in the final two minutes.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Whitford said. “35 minutes into the game, it was anyone’s game. I thought we played really well for 35 minutes. They hit the three 3-pointers in a row and we collapsed. Credit to them, they played a good game.”
One of the reasons Whitford said they lost was because of the free-throw differential. The Cardinals went 4-for-13 at the line while FIU went 17-for-20.
FIU was also led by guard Tevin Brewer who scored 25 points and went 5-for-6 from deep. Ball State was led by freshman forward Basheer Jihad. He had 14 points and five rebounds. Whitford said he is excited for Jihad’s future.
“[Basheer Jihad] is a really talented player,” Whitford said. “I think he has an incredibly bright future. He was a real spark for us offensively and I thought Payton Sparks was a spark defensively tonight. I thought those two guys did a lot of good things.”
Jihad attributed his early success to his teammates for making him feel right at home immediately.
“I feel like everyone has made me feel comfortable playing,” Jihad said. “They give me the ball in spots where I know I can shoot and make plays. They did a good job of making me feel comfortable out there.”
Ball State: 74
Weber State: 85
Weber State (4-0) remained undefeated with a back-and-forth win against the Cardinals. Whitford said he is proud of how the Cardinals battled. He said one of the main issues is not unraveling late in the game.
“Weber State is a good team, and I thought we battled,” Whitford said. “We led for the most of the game, and we had another moment where we kind of unraveled. I think there still was a lot of good they came out of tonight too.”
Ball State has six new players in the rotation this season and Whitford said they are still learning how to stay composed late in games. In the final 6:20 in the game, Weber State was able to put together a 16-5 run to ultimately win.
“I think we have to learn from it,” Whitford said. “Basketball is a game of runs. It was just us losing our composure when the game started to get hard. That has happened to us a number of different times. I think that is an area of growth. We have to be able to learn from each other.”
Whitford said guard Koby McEwen put a lot of pressure on Ball State, as he led all scorers with 30 points and made five 3-pointers. Junior guard Luke Bumbalough had 14 points and freshman center Payton Sparks had 13 points and four rebounds. Sparks’ success allowed Weber State to play small.
“They were driving the ball,” Whitford said. “They went small. They did that because of Payton [Sparks] success. When they did that, they started putting their head down and driving the ball like crazy. That gave us a lot of problems.”
Bumbalough said he still feels very confident about the direction of the Cardinals with how young they are and the biggest thing they need to work on is staying composed late in games.
“We need to continue to trust each other and stay in the moment,” Bumbalough said. “There is always going to be runs, and we are going to figure it out. We are young and a new team. It is a long season, and we are staying together trusting each other and coach.”
Ball State: 89
The Cardinals were able to score a season-high 89 points and put together what they feel was their most complete game of the season against UMASS (3-3)
“I am really proud of our guys,” Whitford said. “We have been playing better each game here. It is great to see this game through the finish line and get a win against a really good UMASS team.”
Despite a UMASS 14-4 run in the second half to pull its 17 point deficit to just one, The Cardinals were able to pull away with key free throws to ultimately win the game.
“I thought we did a much better, in particular, on the offensive end in crunch time,” Whitford said. “If you watch the film, we got a lot of really good shots down the stretch. Even when we went on a bit of a scoring slump, we were getting looks at the rim. It is the name of the game. Some shots go and some shots don’t.”
Junior guard Tyler Cochran led Ball State with 22 points, eight rebounds and four assists, shooting 7-for-8 from the field. His ability to penetrate and force the defense to collapse opened the offense.
“I thought [Cochran] had a great game,” Whitford said. “He had an unbelievable stat line. The thing that is not on the stat sheet is the hustle plays. He just has huge hustle plays that really impacted our team. Those plays are contagious to the rest of the team.”
Cochran said his teammates continue to tell him in practice to keep driving the ball and to kick it out to the shooters.
“I want to thank my coaches and teammate because since I got here they told me to drive and make the defense collapse and kick it out,” Cochran said. “They give me the confidence to keep going and going each play. I have stuck with it.”
Ball State plays Indiana State, Saturday, Nov. 27 at 1 p.m. at Worthen Arena. Cochran said he is really excited for the future of the Cardinals.
“Every game that we play, we find ourselves scratching and crawling,” Cochran said. “Tonight, I thought we showed a glimpse of how good we can really be. We are not even there yet. I really feel great about this year what we can become.”
Contact Ian Hansen with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @ianh_2.