Scenario one: Inbound pass, trap defense, attempt to advance the ball past half court, eventual foul by a Hilltopper to a Cardinal, (mostly) successful free-throw attempts.
Scenario two: Inbound pass, trap defense, attempt to advance the ball past half court, turnover by the Cardinals, Hilltopper score.
Basketball fans commonly refer to the final minutes of a close game as one team playing “the free-throw game” and that was all Ball State Women’s Basketball in the final minutes of their victory over Western Kentucky (2-5).
“We had the right people in, and I think we knew it was a mental toughness thing and we've been practicing free throws this whole week,” Ally Becki said. “I just think when we stepped up to the line, we knew that we had to make it. It wasn't a choice.”
Becki, a sophomore who had 17 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, was 6-6 from the free-throw line in the 82-76 triumph. The Cardinals as a whole shot 18-24 and 14-19 in the fourth quarter.
While the fourth quarter saw the Hilltoppers shorten Ball State’s one-time 20-point lead to five, the first quarter was a one-sided affair that ended up being the X-factor. Western Kentucky never held a lead in this contest, as Ball State outscored them 23-6 in the first quarter.
“We were getting stops and it felt like we were getting any shot we wanted,” Thelma Dis Agustsdottir said. “If we would have kept that going more a little bit it wouldn’t have gotten to that point where it got that close.”
The graduate student had her highest-scoring performance of the young season so far, dropping 22 points on 44 percent shooting from the 3-point line and 64 percent shooting from the field. That said, both Dis Agustsdottir, Becki and head coach Brady Sallee wanted to keep the momentum the Cardinals had in the first quarter going throughout the contest.
“It kind of set an example of what we were trying to do at the beginning,” Becki said. “I think we fell off of it towards the end, but I think how we started is how we should finish.”
After outscoring the Hilltoppers by 17 in the first quarter, the Cardinals didn’t repeat this feat, instead being outscored in the second and fourth quarter, with a tie in the third. Sallee gave credit to Western Kentucky head coach Greg Collins changing the Hilltoppers defensive approach midway through the game to an extended zone that threw the Cardinals off their game.
On the other side of the coin, Sallee held some regret about his game plan in the second half, as Ball State retreated from its usual “press defense no matter what” mentality.
“In hindsight, I probably should have pressed some more in the second half, but they were getting loose on some threes and they were feeling it and I didn't want to give them any free ones out of the press for no reason,” Sallee said. “So shame on me. A few things went into the way the rest of that game was played, but that first quarter ended up being really big.”
While Western Kentucky ended up hitting 11 threes, including nine in the second half, it only finished shooting 31 percent from beyond the arc and 40 percent from the field. In the preseason, and so far in the short regular season, Ball State has prided itself on defensive improvement and it showed once again against the Hilltoppers.
Forcing an average of 22 turnovers per game, the Cardinals forced 27 turnovers against Western Kentucky, opposed to their 18. However, Sallee said a big reason the Hilltoppers were able to stay in the game until the final buzzer was the rebounding battle.
“In terms of just what we were doing with our defensive effort, it was there and now we've got to finish plays,” Sallee said. “That's the lesson we [have] got to take from this. It's one thing to defend their action and to make them make tough shots and all the other stuff, but then you got to be tough enough to go [and] finish the play.”
The Cardinals were outrebounded 44-32, allowing 18 on the offensive end. In seven games this season, Ball State has been bested in this category five times.
While the Cardinals have consistently struggled on the boards, Sallee said due to the short turnaround before their next contest, he is putting trust in the Cardinals to make the adjustment rather than overdoing it in practice.
“The old school coach in me would like to go “war” rebounding for about 45 minutes tomorrow and teach them a lesson, but that would make zero sense,” Sallee said. “I think hopefully they trust me enough to know, and I trust them enough to know that they'll look at this and say that's unacceptable. We'll do something about it, and we better, [because] you’re not going to get away with giving up 18 offensive rebounds a whole lot.”
Ball State (5-2) returns to action Monday, Dec. 5, when they take on the Saint Louis Billikens (2-8) at 6:30 p.m. at Worthen Arena in Muncie, Indiana.