Throughout the offseason, the coaching staff and players for Ball State Women’s Basketball repeated one mantra.
“Five points better.”
The final score of the Cardinals’ first game of the 2022-23 regular season? 68-63. A five-point defeat at the hands of the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles.
At one time trailing by as many as 19 points, Ball State went on a 16-2 run for over six minutes in the fourth quarter, cutting the game down to a two-point Tennessee Tech lead as the Golden Eagles didn’t score for over six minutes. It wasn’t enough.
This is a team with high goals and lofty aspirations. Both players and coaches alike made their largest goal known in the preseason: a Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship.
A loss in the first contest of the season, albeit to a Tennessee Tech team that is projected to win the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC), certainly isn’t the start Ball State was hoping for. However, when asked if the contest was a disappointment, head coach Brady Sallee answered with an emphatic, “No.”
“We’ll take the good, we’ll watch the bad and we’ll learn from the ugly,” Sallee said.
Despite the loss, Sallee found positives amongst the negatives that perhaps held the Cardinals back from achieving victory.
“You go 2-17 [from the three-point line], 10 missed free throws, 24 turnovers…that should be a 15 to 20 point loss,” Sallee said. “So, I'm not a moral victory guy, but realistically, all those things– maybe minus the turnovers– aren't necessarily anything I'm overly worried about.”
Senior Annie Rauch was a bit more conflicted, admitting she felt disappointed, but knows the Cardinals will shoulder the loss and move on.
“I mean, you don't want to lose your first road game,” Rauch said. “I think we were all frustrated because we thought that was a game we could win. I mean, I think this team is somebody that can come out any night and beat anybody. I think we all really believe that.”
On the night, Ball State was not able to play the brand of basketball they feel results in a winning formula. With 58 total fouls at game’s end, Sallee said the Cardinals weren’t able to play at a consistent tempo. Not only that, but sophomore Ally Becki, who was predicted to finish the season as a member of the All-MAC First Team, only played 19 minutes despite starting, due to foul trouble.
“When you want to play the way we want to play, it's really hard,” Sallee said. “The other thing the fouls do is it takes your ability to press out, takes your ability to be aggressive out, because they're just marching to the free throw line every time you touch them. But, it's why you go play on the road. It's why you go play in tough places. It's why you got to play tough teams.”
Sallee called some of the mistakes the Cardinals made throughout the game “self-inflicted ridiculousness.”
“Some of the turnovers, some of the fouls and the softness [were] like, ‘Come on, you don't do that. That's not the way you play,’” Sallee said. “They know that…the first day out, you just gotta be a little bit mentally tougher than we were in that first half, especially the second quarter.”
Graduate student guard Jordan Brock and redshirt freshman guard Reagan Hurst co-led the Golden Eagles in scoring with 16 points each. While some of the stats were ugly, Ball State did show signs of the team they expect to be.
With five newcomers serving as additions to the team, the Cardinals expanded from their usual eight-player rotation last season to ten tonight. The change reaped benefits as Ball State’s bench outscored Tennessee Tech’s 39-24 and three of the four Cardinal players with double-digit points came off the bench.
Sydney Shafer, a senior transfer from Western Michigan, impressed through three quarters as her 11 points off the bench led the Cardinals at the time. Freshman Alex Richard scored 11 points and collected eight rebounds, five of freshman Sydney Bolden’s seven points came in the 16-2 fourth quarter run and Rauch finished with 10 points and seven boards.
Sallee said the bench was the reason Ball State was in a position to win the game and Rauch talked about being ready when her number is called and how that has been her mentality throughout her time as a Cardinal. She echoed some of Sallee’s concerns with toughness, but felt the Cardinals did a better job of showing that as the game progressed.
“I think toughness is something that we've all been talking about that we need to work on, so it was good to see that come through a little bit,” Rauch said. “I think on a night where maybe we weren't hitting the outside shots that we're used to hitting, it became about getting stops and rebounds and I think you saw in that (16-2) run that we were really able to do that, and I think that's something that good teams do down the stretch.”
Not only did the bench impress, but one of the Cardinals’ biggest talking points of improvement during last season was realized as the Ball State outrebounded the Golden Eagles 48-28.
“It's something that we've talked about, [where] if we're going to be a better team than we were last year, we need to be better rebounders,” Rauch said. “I think especially on the offensive rebounding, and we've put a really large emphasis on that because it's really a lot of effort-based stuff, which is stuff we can control.”
Additionally, Anna Clephane led the Cardinals in scoring with 12 points as she made her regular season return from a season-ending ACL injury a year ago.
The Cardinals look to bounce back Nov. 14 when they take on Indiana University East in Ball State’s home opener at 11 a.m. in Worthen Arena.