CLEVELAND–– “We’re a family, we’re ready for this and we were ready today,” redshirt senior Anna Clephane said.
Heading into its first round matchup against Akron, Ball State Women’s Basketball players and coaches alike said the Cardinals had to stick to one thing. Identity.
“Today it was all about turning defense into offense,” Clephane said. “We were able to play to our strengths, which is getting to run up on teams and playing quick in transition.”
With 22 points off 17 forced turnovers, Ball State did just that, defeating the Zips 92-68 in a first round Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament matchup. After the No. 3 seed Cardinals (25-7) defeated the No. 6 seed Akron (17-13) in both regular season matchups, the Zips came out with a chip on their shoulders.
Ball State trailed the entire first quarter, as Akron started the game making five of its first six shots and led 20-19 going into the second quarter. Ball State head coach Brady Sallee was not surprised with Akron’s fire coming into the first quarter, and said his players weren’t either.
“We know they're good, so we just had an intense focus on what we had to do,” Sallee said. “I thought we were a little bit uncomfortable at the nail in our offense, and once we settled down when we caught the ball there we played from there all day. Akron does a great job of adjusting, [and] they started taking that away, so we started being isolated in the post one-on-one, and our kids did a great job of understanding how we had to get it there.”
For reference, Ball State outscored Akron 40-24 in the paint.
At the 9:15 mark in the second quarter, Ball State took the lead and never looked back. At halftime, the Cardinals led the Zips 41-31.
Coming out of the break, Akron went on a 6-0 run, cutting the lead to four. Ball State responded with a 13-2 run and the game was all but over from there.
Ball State had four of five starters and five total players in double-digit scoring, with All-MAC First Team honoree Clephane’s 20 points leading the way and sophomore Alex Richard scoring a career-high 19 off the bench.
“Just knowing how important that this game is to us and that we've worked so hard for this,” Richard said. “We've prepared a lot in practice, and just like coach Brady always says, you never know when you're going to be called off the bench and you don't know how long it's going to be. So just always be ready.”
Despite the loss, Akron sophomore All-MAC First Team honoree Reagan Bass led all scorers with 24 points. Additionally, Sallee said the Zips are not renewing fifth-year head coach Melisssa Jackson’s contract after this season, so he made a point to highlight her merit and importance to the MAC after the Cardinals’ victory.
Ball State now shifts its focus towards its semifinal opponent March 10, No. 2 seed Bowling Green (26-5). The Cardinals and Falcons split their regular season series, where Ball State defeated Bowling Green 81-73 in the first meeting, and the result was flipped in their second contest, a 81-76 victory for the Falcons.
“It's going to be a completely different game,” Sallee said. “Akron played zone and Bowling Green is going to press you as soon as you get off the bus. We'll develop a plan like always, [but] it'll be a little bit different because it'll be done in a ballroom and probably on a high school court somewhere in the local area.”
Ball State shot 17-22 (77 percent) from the free-throw line against Akron, a stark contrast to its 11-25 (44 percent) in its most recent meeting against Bowling Green. Clephane said since the Cardinals’ loss to the Falcons less than two weeks ago is still fresh in the mind of Ball State, the Cardinals have a better understanding of what adjustments need to be made to advance to the MAC Championship March 11.
“It's gonna be a lot about mindset and getting ourselves in the right place to do exactly what we know how to do, and changing a few things,” Clephane said. “We didn't play them that long ago, so [we need to] be able to tweak what we already know we have to and use that knowledge.”
Earlier in the season, Sallee said it’s a battle every time Ball State and Bowling Green square off, showcasing the competitive nature of the MAC. After all four first round matchups saw each top seed advance, Sallee said the potential for a tightly-contested semifinal round and championship game is “tremendous.”
“They know what we do. We know what they do. They've got really good players. We've got really good players,” Sallee said. “It's everything that this conference tournament should be…It's everything, and you better leave it on the floor on Friday, and I think both teams understand that.”