Ball State Women’s Basketball head coach Brady Sallee traveled to Fort Wayne, Ind., Jan. 6 to scout for his 2023-24 recruiting class. He drove separate for the trip to Kalamazoo, Mich., Jan. 7 for the Cardinals’ game against Western Michigan
While following the team bus to the arena hours before game time, Sallee said he received a call from the Cardinals’ trainer telling him Ally Becki would be inactive for the game with a swollen knee she sustained during the Cardinals’ shoot around earlier. When they got to the arena, Sallee said he gave the sophomore a hug and told her to be a good teammate. When he followed up with the trainer, he asked about her knee and the severity of it, but he said he asked more about Becki’s mental state.
Sallee and Ball State went into their conference contest against the Broncos with “zero” prep to be without the 2021-22 All-MAC Freshman Team member, and when the 11th-year head coach addressed the Cardinals before the game, he said he was addressing 12 athletes who love each other.
“Ally was going to be a great teammate, [and] they were going to have her back. There was no doubt in my mind, we were going to fight to get this one,” Sallee said. “Now whether or not we get it or not, you never know, but I knew the fight was going to be there because of their connection and how much they all need each other. In those moments, you can't do anything other than step up for each other, and I felt like that was just the theme of today's game.”
As Becki sat on the bench in a black jacket, black sweatpants and black slides, the Cardinals (12-3, 2-0 MAC) rolled with the punches dealt before the game and responded with a 76-70 road victory that was their 10th win in 11 games. Sallee has talked about Ball State’s depth throughout the season, and credited everyone on the roster getting the same reps in practice, not just eight or nine players, as to why they were able to come out victorious against Western Michigan (5-8, 0-2 MAC).
“Once we swallowed the fact that Ally’s not gonna be here, it was time to lean on some mental toughness and it was time to lean on our physical toughness,” Sallee said. “We're okay in the grind. I think we've proven that all year long.”
Additionally, Ball State struggled early on with foul trouble, as redshirt senior Anna Clephane (14 points, eight rebounds) and sophomore Marie Kiefer found themselves on the bench for much of the first half after starting the game. As Kiefer only played 12 total minutes, this allowed for redshirt junior forward Taylor Williams to lead all scorers with 25 points as she also grabbed six rebounds.
However, the depth Sallee has talked so much about kept the Cardinals in the game, only trailing by two at halftime. At the end of the contest, Ball State’s bench outscored Western Michigan’s 25-11.
Speaking of decreased playing time, graduate student Thelma Dis Agustsdottir tweaked her ankle early during Ball State’s Jan. 4 win over Bowling Green (12-2, 1-1 MAC), resulting in her only playing 26 minutes with three points. However, that ankle injury might as well have never happened, as just three days later she led the Cardinals with 20 points and 35 minutes, saying after receiving treatment multiple times a day since the injury, her ankle didn’t bother her as much as she expected in the contest.
Among those who stepped up in a more increased role was freshman Sydney Bolden, who was described on the ESPN+ broadcast as a “spark plug” off the bench with her career-high 13 points. While she didn’t record any points, Estel Puiggros started in place of Becki and saw her most minutes (29) since she went down late in the 2021-22 season with an ACL injury.
“I think it just shows how good of a team we have, we're such good friends, [and] we just love seeing each other succeed,” Dis Agustsdottir said. “It doesn't matter who's down or who's in foul trouble or who's not playing great, just everyone has to step up.”
With eight lead changes, the contest was a back-and-forth struggle, especially in the second half. With that in mind, Sallee said he feels the Cardinals’ comfort zone is playing tough and playing in tight games.
“Our kids just had a real calmness about them, and a real understanding of the little things that it takes to win games,” Sallee said. “I think the stretch we're on, that's what you start seeing. You've learned from all of those moments, and you build confidence from it, but you also build knowledge.”
While the Cardinals have focused throughout the season on defense and forcing turnovers, Ball State surrendered the ball 23 times in their victory, as opposed to the Broncos’ 20. However, they made up for it on the boards (40-31), another category Sallee consistently harps on. He said it’s the culture built within the program that's the reason why the Cardinals don’t allow a struggle in one aspect of the game to drive them to a loss.
“In those moments, you don't have time to feel sorry for yourself, you don't have time to be selfish. If you're about winning,” Sallee said. “If you're not about winning, in those moments, it shows. As hard as it may be as a human being not to be in your feelings when you turn the ball over, or when things don't go your way, our group is bought into what our goal is, and it's a very common goal. When that ball goes up in the air, man, it's all about winning.”
The Cardinals are back in action Jan. 11 in Toledo, Ohio, as they take on the Rockets (10-3, 1-1) at 7 p.m ET.