CLEVELAND–– Audrey Spencer doesn’t remember much about Ball State Women’s Basketball’s triumph over Bowling Green in the 2009 Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament championship game. She knows she didn’t score any points and that it was a close game, but she doesn’t remember many specifics about the gameplay itself.
What she does remember is the confetti that fell from the rafters of the–at the time–Quicken Loans Arena. She remembers the MAC Champion hats given to all members of the Cardinals. She remembers cutting down the nets. She remembers the Ball State faithful in attendance.
That was Ball State Women’s Basketball’s first MAC Championship, the only one the Cardinals have ever won. Punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament, the No. 12 seed Cardinals matched up against No. 5 seed and two-time defending national champions Tennessee.
At the time, the Volunteers were led by the eight-time national champion head coach Pat Summit, and Spencer remembers when Tennessee came onto the court for warmups, the Cardinals stopped in awe. Spencer remembers the sea of Tennessee Orange filling the seats with one section of Ball State Red in the mix.
The Cardinals pulled off what was called by ESPN at the time, the biggest upset in the history of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, defeating the Volunteers 71-55. While Ball State lost to No. 4 seed Iowa State in the next round, this is considered to be the greatest season in the history of Ball State Women’s Basketball.
After her time as a player, in which she finished first all-time in career 3-pointers made, Spencer has spent 11 seasons as associate head coach for the Cardinals. Of all the teams she has been around throughout this time, she said she feels the current group is the most similar to the accomplished 2008-09 team.
“When I was a player, we were led by some extremely great seniors. We had a point guard that didn't take any crap from anybody and had some swag about her. We had no fear, and we absolutely adored and loved each other and still do,” Spencer said. “You fast forward to this team, and what I just described was Anna [Clephane] and Thelma [Dis Agustsdottir] as the leaders. A point guard that doesn't take any crap from anybody in Ally Becki, who by the way is pretty darn good. You've got a surrounding cast of just solid good players, and then all 12 of them are happy to be here. They want to be here. They want to win.”
During MAC Tournament play, it’s all about winning and advancing. You win or go home. Period.
Spencer was honest and said when it comes to something as elementary as packing for a trip such as this, how much you put in your suitcase depends on how you feel about your team’s chances.
“There's been years where I haven't packed to stay. This year, and some recent years I have,” Spencer said. “I think we've got a group that we have a ton of faith in, and we are not up here just to survive and advance. We're trying to win the dang thing with some “umph” behind it.”
Spencer’s family is joining her in Cleveland, and outside of her duties as associate head coach, she has to be a wife and mother. She mentioned she was on about two hours of sleep after No. 3 seed Ball State’s first round contest against No. 6 seed Akron (17-13) March 8.
The Cardinals and Zips played in the fourth game of the day, so she didn’t get back to her hotel until about 9:30 p.m. Once she got back, she had to make sure her children were fed and put to bed, then she watched film around 11:30 p.m. over Bowling Green to prepare for the Cardinals’ semifinal matchup March 10. The next morning, Ball State practiced at 10 a.m.
Whether it’s as a player or a coach, this is par for the course during a tournament. Rather than having multiple days to prepare for the next opponent, programs sometimes only have multiple hours.
“That's what this time of year is all about,” Spencer said. “There's a lot of teams sitting at home right now that don't get these days. So you've got to appreciate them and you've got to live in the moment.”
Redshirt senior Clephane is playing in her third MAC Tournament, as she missed two due to injury. The 2022-23 All-MAC First Team member has spent all five years in the program working closely with Spencer and said the associate head coach’s experience helps on and off the court.
“I think it's really beneficial to have someone who came before us who knows exactly what to do to get to where we want to be. We're not going in blind,” Clephane said. “We have that guidance, and I think that’s helpful for us, and it gives us a little bit of comfort.”
While these tournaments, both conference or non-conference, make game preparation different and potentially challenging, they also offer programs unique opportunities to grow closer together.
“Those kind of things are always really fun because when else are you going to be able to stay in a hotel or a foreign country or Cleveland with a team that you really love? I think that we do appreciate it, and we try to spend as much time with each other as possible doing whatever it is we're doing,” Clephane said. “We're always laughing, we're always just hanging out, [and] it's a good time. There’s definitely some memories I know I'll never forget.”
Throughout her time as a player, Spencer said she doesn’t remember very many games outside of ones like those against the likes of Bowling Green and Tennessee, but rather the “sisterhood” forged between teammates.
“I remember the bus rides and I remember the times in the hotel rooms and all of the relationships. That's what sticks,” Spencer said. “We're preaching that to our team right now, and this group is closer than probably any group we've had.”
As a coach, Spencer remembers how the Cardinals rode scooters around Cleveland on an off day during the 2022 MAC Tournament. While she chuckled and said that may not be the best idea the day before a game, it was all about bringing Ball State closer together.
The Cardinals often spend time with each other outside of basketball during the regular season as well, and Clephane said the difference between that time and the time spent at a tournament comes down to mindset. In a tournament, while the Cardinals try to have fun, they also know they have to remain focused on their goal. During the regular season, they can sometimes “turn off basketball” while bonding.
“I think our players understand how to get locked in, when to get locked in and then when to just unwind and appreciate the time that they have with just each other,” Spencer said. “I think when teams can enjoy that part of it they become that much more close.”
When Clephane wants to get “locked in” for a big game at a tournament, outside of her physical pregame exercises, she listens to certain playlists that help her get in a necessary mindset, she tries not to get too much or too little sleep and she tries not to use her phone too much.
“Tourney time is a different animal, for sure,” Clephane said. “This is my first time getting past the first round where I'm actually playing, so it's a really great feeling to be able to do that, but I think that the intensities are just risen, and you have to be locked in because every play matters. It's not like you can take plays off or you can be like, ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’”
During the Cardinals’ victory against Akron, Clephane demonstrated this focused nature, scoring a team-high 20 points. Yet during the times she wasn’t on the court, she could be seen ferociously cheering on her teammates on the sidelines.
“There's not a bond [this strong] that you're gonna make outside of college athletics,” Clephane said. “Literally going through blood, sweat and tears with the same people that you love to hang out with, I think there's nothing like it.”
The Cardinals (25-7) return to action March 10 against No. 2 seed Bowling Green (26-5) in a semifinal matchup. The game starts approximately 30 minutes after the conclusion of game one at 10 a.m.
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @KyleSmedley_.