A battle of experience against inexperience took place in Kent, Ohio tonight.
Ball State (13-6, 4-2 MAC) went on the road to take on battle-tested Kent State (16-3, 6-0 MAC) in a matchup of the two teams atop the Mid-American Conference (MAC) standings, and Kent State put on a clinic.
The Golden Flashes clicked on just about every aspect of the game, while the Cardinals had trouble on both sides of the ball. Head Coach Michael Lewis acknowledges that this was their first real test of the season.
“Obviously we did not compete well, for our first test as a team that is fighting alone to be near the top of this league and we failed, we failed our first test…” he said. “This was our first venture into being in a matchup of a first and second-place team and in a league. None of these guys have ever played in that. So with that experience, I think we can grow if we're going to compete for what we want to compete for.”
Kent State is a team that has only lost three times this season. Those three losses? All nationally AP-ranked teams. A buzzer-beating loss at Charleston, who is now No. 18. A five-point loss at then-No. 2 Houston (now No. 1) and a seven-point loss at then-No. 18 Gonzaga (now No. 6).
“That is a really good basketball team that we played. I've been lucky enough to be a part of 23 NCAA Tournament games and that team is without a doubt, an NCAA tournament team and one that can win a game,” Lewis said.
Lewis says that this game was a result of an inexperienced team that has seen a shift in the program matching up against a proven team.
“They cause a lot of disruptions and we did not play with great poise or execute particularly well to begin the game. It's a learning process when you go through what this team is going through,” he said. “Our guys have been through a lot. They've been through a coaching change, they've learned how to win, they've learned how to fight and compete and they're learning how to handle success. And we came into a team that was hungry.”
After the Golden Flashes began to pull away, the Cardinals were able to come up with a few stops and buckets on the other end to cut into the lead and go into the half down 10. However, forward Chris Payton and guard Sincere Carry had other plans.
First, Payton came up with a big slam, then Ball State had an empty trip on offense. Carry, who finished with a game-high 18 points, sank a step-back 3-pointer at the buzzer to put Kent State up 17 points going into halftime.
“At that point in the end of the half when you're just trying to weather the storm and get to halftime by trying to get yourself within striking distance and then they put a run together,” Lewis said. “You’ve got to be able to weather storms and these types of environments to be able to compete and, from top to bottom, offensively and defensively, we did not perform at the level that we needed to perform tonight.”
Going into this game, you knew it would be intense. The top two teams compete for the number one spot in the MAC. During pregame warmups, tempers flared and there was a slight scuffle in which players needed to be separated.
Ball State, a team that has prided itself on using its home crowd as fuel in their undefeated home stand this season, fell victim to the other side of the spectrum. Lewis likes this though, as he recognizes the opportunity for growth.
“It's a step in the right direction for us,” he said. “I want [loud crowds] to become the norm when we go on the road when we play in these types of environments and get that type of reaction, but we’ve got to grow into it because we did not handle it very well tonight.”
Lewis does say, though, that he doesn’t care about where the game is played, as long as they are competing.
“I don't get caught up in home and road,” he said. “I get caught up in the performance and how we played. Whether this game was played in Muncie or played here in Kent, it doesn't really factor in.”
Ball State comes back home to take on Buffalo (9-9, 3-2 MAC) Tuesday, Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. in Worthen Arena.