“I said when we got this job, we wanted to build a program that the community and the state was proud of,” Ball State head coach Michael Lewis said.
After tonight's win, Cardinal fans might have something to be proud of.
Ball State followed up its win over Toledo with a win over defending Mid-American Conference Tournament Champions Akron.
After going through a match that saw technical fouls, frustrated coaches and an active Worthen Arena crowd, the Cardinals defeated the Zips 70-63 for their seventh victory in a row.
Ball State opened up the game with a 7-0 run that forced an Akron timeout. But after the ball was inbounded, the game changed.
Akron’s defense kicked in and began to control the tempo. One thing that both teams were able to do well throughout the game was the ability to rebound. The Cardinals had 19 in the first half and finished the contest with 37.
“It's huge in every game and it's something that we put a big point of emphasis on,” Lewis said. “As we started play here in the MAC, I thought our rebounding was slipping towards the end of our non conference schedule and so there's been a little bit more emphasis in practice.”
Nearing the final seconds of the first half, the Zips had taken the lead by three. But senior guard Demarious Jacobs took the inbounded ball, drove down the court and swished a one-handed jumper. The Cardinals trailed 30-31 heading to the locker room.
The first half saw many fouls called, but it was nothing compared to the second half. The first ten minutes of the second half went smoothly. It was a back-and-forth game that saw both squads battle in the paint, and they each would finish the contest with 32 points from the inside.
Around the ten-minute mark, however, things got interesting. It started when redshirt-junior Jarron Coleman hit a layup. He said something after the shot and the referee did not hold back, giving him a technical foul.
After that was called, coach Lewis was also given one for arguing with an official. Once that was cleared up, the game resumed. On the Cardinals' next possession, there was a mix-up that led to shoving and forced the officials and coaches to break it up.
Even though Coach Lewis did not think his technical helped the team, he liked the way his players responded.
“I thought I'd put them in a bad spot,” he said. “But I loved the way that they responded. And, you know, like I said, we just were out there fighting. That's the attitude I want from our guys and they're adapting to that.”
With the number of fouls being called on both squads and multiple players in high foul territory, sophomore center Payton Sparks did not let that bother him as he went on to lead the Cardinals with 15 points.
“We think about it [fouling out] but you got to stay in the moment and just keep playing,” Sparks said. “To be honest, you can’t think about the last play.”
Towards the end, the Worthen Arena crowd began to make its presence known. With 1:30 left in the game, Demarius Jacobs went for a block but was called for a foul. The Cardinal fans let the officials know that they disagreed with the call once it was shown on the jumbotron.
In the final thirty seconds, Ball State led by two possessions. The Zips went for a bucket and missed, the ball was tipped and hopped around until Coleman was able to secure the rebound, giving his squad the victory.
Leading scorers for Ball State were Sparks and Coleman, who each had 15. One thing that helped the Cardinals was their ability to share the ball. Only one Cardinal did not score. Coach Lewis values the depth of his team.
“Anytime you can have depth and when you can put guys in your play doesn't drop, it makes you a better basketball team,” Lewis said. “I don't look at starters or the bench. I look at basketball players. I don't have set substitution patterns, so I just go off what’s best for that situation.”
The Cardinals have now defeated last year's MAC regular season champions and MAC tournament champions. But for Lewis, it is all part of building the program.
“It does nothing for us this year,” he said. “I think it's good for the community. I think it's good for our university because I think it can drive excitement. We want this to become the norm, you know. You build a good program that's competing the way that we want to until that becomes normal.”
For their next contest, Ball State will travel to face Ohio next Jan. 10 at 7 p.m.