Following Ball State Women's Basketball's loss to Bowling Green in a semifinal Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament contest March 10, heads hung low as the Cardinals dream of winning the conference championship was over. However, head coach Brady Sallee stressed that didn’t mean there wasn’t still something to play for.
"We've still got basketball to play. The season is not over,” he said.
He knew the Cardinals would likely receive an invitation to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT), as made official March 13. Whatever difficult feelings Ball State had following its heartbreak in Cleveland was either put behind the Cardinals or used as motivation, as Ball State (26-8) defeated Belmont (23-12) 101-86 in a first round WNIT contest.
“We’re not ready to be done,” Thelma Dis Agustsdottir said.
The graduate student had 20 points in what could be her final game in Muncie. What’s more, her six 3-pointers put her at 104 on the season, the most in a single season in program history. With 322 career 3-pointers, Dis Agustsdottir only needs two more to become the all-time leader in 3-pointers made in program history.
The crowd at Worthen Arena gave her a standing ovation as the accomplishment was announced by the public address announcer, and in the post-game press conference redshirt senior Anna Clephane, Dis Agustsdottir’s best friend, pumped her fist with joy.
“It just means everything,” Dis Agustsdottir said. “I wouldn't be in this position without my teammates or without my community.”
In the same position as Dis Agustsdottir, the next Ball State loss will be Clephane’s last game as a Cardinal. She played like it against the Bruins, dropping a career-high 31 points on 75 percent shooting from the field.
The last time the All-MAC First Team honoree played at home, against Toledo Feb. 25, Clephane only had nine points on her and Dis Agustsdottir’s senior day. She said she used that as motivation to perform at a career best in the WNIT.
“Last time we played in this arena it kind of left a sour taste in my mouth,” Clephane said. “So being able to get out there and just enjoy playing with this team and see some shots go in felt really great.”
The sophomore duo of Madelyn Bischoff and Ally Becki each achieved career highs as well, with Bischoff scoring 23 points, shooting five of six from the 3-point line, and Becki dishing out 13 assists, with an additional nine points and seven rebounds.
Sallee said although he didn’t know who Ball State would be matching up against until a couple of days before tip-off, once he found out, he knew Belmont would be a challenging matchup. The Bruins have made the Women’s NCAA Tournament seven times since 2007, including appearances in 2021 and 2022.
“This is a team that is used to this time of year,” Sallee said. “They're used to winning, they're used to playing on the road…And so, in a neat way, I kind of went into [this game] and said, ‘This is what the postseason looks like. You play those kinds of teams.’ I thought it was just a really well played game.”
While the Cardinals ended up winning by 15, they didn’t dominate throughout. In fact, at the end of the first quarter, they trailed 23-12.
Sallee said with the limited time he had to scout the Bruins, he knew the Cardinals had to hone in on one side of the ball in particular.
“The majority of our time was spent on defense, because we knew how good they were,” Sallee said. “I think we've got confidence in what we do offensively. We worked on a couple wrinkles with some stuff, but we had a good feeling about what we could do offensively.”
The Cardinals turned the tide in the second quarter, as Ball State outscored Belmont 30-17 and shot six for nine from beyond the arc. Sallee compared the Cardinals’ normal approach early in games to a boxing match, as they feel out their opponent before making the adjustments necessary to succeed.
“We've got a very smart basketball team,” Sallee said. “They get a feel for what's going on and they can listen and we didn't change hardly anything. We just talked about doing some stuff better, and our tempo got going and then we got going.”
A game defining sequence started at the 38 second mark in the second quarter, as Ball State grabbed its first lead since 9:14 in the first quarter off a Dis Agustsdottir 3-pointer. During Belmont’s following possession, Cardinal fans rose to their feet, resulting in a blocked shot from Becki with two seconds left on the shot clock.
After the inbound, sophomore forward Tessa Miller hit a layup to give the Bruins their lead back. With five seconds left, Bischoff took the ball up the court and hit an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer to make the game 42-40 in Ball State’s favor as the fans in Worthen Arena were as loud as they had been all season.
From there, it seemed to be all Ball State. The Cardinals scored 30 points yet again in the third quarter, establishing momentum that lasted until the final buzzer, as the Cardinals finished shooting 50 percent from the 3-point line.
Bruins junior guard Destinee Wells, member of the All-Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) First Team, scored 35 points in this contest. However, the low hanging heads from March 10 changed to smiles filling the faces of the Cardinals as they closed in on their first WNIT win since the 2017-18 season, when they defeated Middle Tennessee in the first round.
Ball State moves on to face Memphis (21-10) in the second round of the WNIT at a date, time and location that has yet to be announced.