Even after an important win in the first Mid-American Conference (MAC) game of the season for Ball State Women’s Basketball, head coach Brady Sallee was found in the Cardinals’ press room standing up for not only his players and his program, but the MAC and women’s basketball in general.
“We need our conference to step up,” Sallee said. “This game should have been on CBS Network, this game should have been on ESPNU or ESPN2, this game should have been out there for everybody to see it with the click of a button… we need them to invest in women’s basketball… we’ve got to make some different choices, and as coaches we’ve got to put our feet to the fire.”
At 6:30 p.m., the same time Ball State took on Bowling Green, men’s college basketball could be found on all three channels Sallee mentioned. Of the three games broadcast, Iowa State was the only team of the six in play that is currently ranked in the Associated Press’ Top 25 Rankings.
While neither the Cardinals (11-3, 1-0 MAC) nor the Falcons (11-2, 0-1 MAC) are ranked in the top 25 for women’s college basketball, they held the two highest records in their conference heading into their matchup.
“This is our league,” redshirt senior Anna Clephane said. “It’s games like this every night for this part of the season. I think that we fought hard to get where we are, and I think that we're working our way up to the top and we do deserve to have some more exposure with the amount of talent that we have in this league and on this team.”
Remember when No. 6 Indiana University faced the University of Auburn in a hotel conference room in Las Vegas in November? While Ball State and Bowling Green played their game at Worthen Arena, this game not being broadcast on television made an impact on the Cardinals.
Not only did the accused underrepresentation of college women’s basketball do that, but so did the added importance of this game being the first conference game of the season, and one against an opponent that was ranked one spot below them in the MAC’s Preseason Coaches Poll (third).
“I told them at shootaround, ‘This game is why [you’re] all here,’ that's why they wanted to come to Ball State, to play in this game, in that kind of game that means that much,” Sallee said. “It didn't mean anything from the standings, but it meant something because everybody in in our league and outside of our league was watching this game. They knew this was the game tonight, and so that's why you wear a jersey and we're awfully proud of that.”
For some, like sophomore Alex Richard, this was the first exposure to MAC play of their collegiate career. However, for others, like Clephane, this part of the season is one they know holds utmost importance.
“This is what our team has been working for, this is what I've been working for, [I] didn't know if I'd ever make it back this point so it's really really great to be able to be here,” Clephane said. “It's a dogfight every single night we go out during MAC play, and really it's up in the air which team is going to win and it's always fun.”
While at one point in the fourth quarter the Cardinals led by 14 points, the Falcons cut it down to three moments later, proving no team is out of a game in MAC play. Junior guard Nyla Hampton co-led Bowling green in scoring with 18, along with senior Allison Day who added 12 rebounds.
However, throughout the 2022-23 season, Ball State has proved it is capable of hanging with the punches and staying focused down the stretch. Clephane said she feels the Cardinals excel when under pressure, making tight wins over Tarleton State, Pitt and Bowling Green possible. Richard commented on the importance of being in games such as those previously mentioned.
“It comes down to heart,” Richard said. “We have really tough practices, we have a really tough non-conference schedule, so this is what it's all about. We know that we need to stay focused.”
The Cardinals did so, with big plays from sophomores Ally Becki (13 points, 11 assists) and Marie Kiefer (nine points, 13 rebounds, four blocks) sealing the 81-73 victory for Ball State. Although this is only the first of 18 regular season conference games, a win to begin this stretch of the season off does build momentum, Richard said.
Whether it be players diving for loose balls (35 total turnovers), chippy play (49 total fouls) or back and forth runs (five lead changes), the trio’s words on the competitiveness of the conference were backed up. On the night, Clephane had a team-best 22 points, while Richard, who said this contest was eye-opening for how gritty MAC play is, followed with 14 points and five rebounds.
While many stats were close between the Falcons and Cardinals, Ball State dominated their opponent with bench production, outscoring Bowling Green 31-11. Along with Richard’s 14, senior Sydney Shafer added nine points, including last second buckets at the end of the first two quarters of play. Sallee said the Cardinals’ depth means he can change his coaching approach as games come down to the wire, giving him multiple options as for who to turn to.
“We can grind one out, we can do what we need to do to get to the end,” Sallee said. “That personifies the depth I'm talking about, and we trust it. So if we have to salt it away with a different combination in our next game, we're all good.”
The Cardinals return to action Jan. 7 against Western Michigan (5-7, 0-1 MAC) at 2 p.m. in Kalamazoo, Michigan.