Love was in the air tonight.
Dishing out 15 assists as a team, Ball State (19-7, 10-3 MAC) took care of business as it completed the season sweep of short-handed Northern Illinois (11-15, 7-6 MAC) by 10 points.
The first thing head coach Michael Lewis had to say in the post-game press conference was an acknowledgment of a hard-fought game from the Huskies.
“I gotta give [Rashon] Burno and Northern Illinois a lot of credit,” he said. “To be down a guy and for those guys to continue to play and fight and compete says a lot about their team and their character, so give them a lot of credit.”
Although the Cardinals led most of the game, it was pretty back-and-forth in scoring all night. However, they closed the first half and opened the second half with scoring runs to give themselves a cushion that they used for the rest of the contest.
“I'm not sure we win the game without [those runs]. We built a 10-point lead heading into half right there at the end. I think when we pushed it out to 17, that was good,” Lewis said. “We had some moments there late and we gotta be able to put it away, but you get a lead like that at the under four [media timeout], really the only way they're going to catch up is to turn the ball over and give up threes. Now we didn't turn the ball over but we gave up four threes…We can grow from that.”
In a game that saw all five starters for Ball State score in double figures – Payton Sparks (20), Demarius Jacobs and Jarron Coleman (17), Jaylin Sellers (13), Mickey Pearson, Jr. (10) – the stat line that stood out the most was Sparks.
Not only did he finish with 20 points while shooting 57 percent (8-of-14), but he also grabbed 16 rebounds, tying a career-high. He wasn’t the only one with a double-double though, as Pearson also finished with 10 rebounds, securing his second double-double of the season.
“Really proud of these guys [and] their effort. [Payton Sparks] was a monster inside... obviously was a force with his stat line and Mickey just continues to be Mickey and do what he does and has really impacted winning in a lot of different ways,” Lewis said.
Sparks’ most important play of the night perhaps came around the four-minute mark in the second half. As NIU forward Anthony Crump (16 points) drove to the basket, he stepped in and took a charge, giving Crump his fifth and final foul.
“It was a momentum booster. I think it was a really big play,” Sparks said. “I mean, we were giving them points back-to-back times so I felt like it was just a play I needed to make so we can win the game.”
On Jan. 28, Northern Illinois was the first win for Ball State after suffering two blowout losses at the hands of Kent State and Buffalo. Lewis believes the Buffalo game was the team's worst performance of the season. They have now won six straight since then.
“We got guys with character. You [can] watch that film and if you’ve got any type of competitiveness and you respect yourself, you respect your teammates, you care about the program, it doesn't take much,” he said. “You watch that and you realize what you put out there, if you got a little fight in you you're gonna respond and these guys have.”
The Cardinals continue to sit in second place in a tie with Akron (18-8, 10-3 MAC) in conference standings. This win and every game moving forward will be big in preparation for the conference tournament in Cleveland in March.
“As a coach, you couldn't be prouder of what they've accomplished, but you're also trying to push and prod to try to get more out there because I think there's some more in there that we can get and we haven't played our best basketball yet…” Lewis said. “You want to continue to be growing at this time of year even though you're this far along because the teams that are gonna go to Cleveland are all building to try to play their best basketball.”
Ball State heads back on the road to take on Western Michigan (6-20, 2-11 MAC) on Feb. 18 at 2:30 p.m.
Contact Derran Cobb with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @Derran_cobb.