“Bring the fight.”
That was the last thing Michael Lewis told the Cardinals before they took the court against USC Upstate. Three days prior, Ball State men’s basketball fell to Evansville by 24 points.
“When you don't compete, I have a real problem with that because it's a reflection of me, quite frankly,” Lewis said. “These guys, they know they have more fight, and that's not who they are.”
The Cardinals’ second-year head coach said he pulled Mickey Pearson Jr. aside following his one-point performance against the Aces and told the redshirt junior even though his role for Ball State is larger this season, he doesn’t have to change who he is – that he is good enough.
“[Lewis] told me, ‘Don’t go away from the things that got you here,’” Pearson said.
Once the final buzzer sounded against USC Upstate, Pearson Jr. dropped a career-high 24 points in the Cardinals’ 75-58 victory.
He said being aggressive early and attacking the basket with a couple quick layups helped him build confidence in the standout effort.
Pearson said the Cardinals came into this contest with a bad taste in their mouths from the Evansville loss and knew in the first few minutes against the Spartans they made the proper mental adjustments to set themselves up for success.
Redshirt junior Ben Hendriks made his first start of the season, swapping out freshman forward Mason Jones, but Lewis said he doesn’t put much stock into who starts each game, rather who finishes it. However, he felt adding the 6’10” center to the starting lineup would provide Ball State with a fresh look and necessary size to get the Cardinals going early.
Hendriks had six points and two blocks before the midway mark of the first half. Ball State even finished the game out rebounding the Spartans 42-24.
While Ball State held the lead for 38 minutes of play, the Spartans did cut the deficit to one point in the second half. However, Lewis felt the Cardinals’ improved effort turned into execution down the stretch when it mattered most.
Four Cardinals finished with double-digit points, including junior guard Jalin Anderson (10) and junior forward Basheer Jihad (12), among others.
Lewis and Pearson teased junior Davion Bailey when the guard said – despite his team-high 28 3-point attempts this season – his main focus on the floor is on the defensive end. In Ball State’s win over Old Dominion 10 days ago, he was awarded the squad’s “dog bone” for the player with the most deflection on defense.
“I’m trying to prove the ones that say I can’t play defense wrong,” Bailey said. “It’s just being active all the time and playing with effort for all 40 minutes.”
Bailey said this mentality has developed over time, whether that be his tenure at Pike High School, Southeastern Community College or even at Ball State.
“I had to learn that what I was doing before wasn’t enough,” Bailey said. “I had to demand more of myself and put in a lot more work to get to a higher level.”
Bailey finished with a season-high 11 points on 3/7 shooting beyond the arc against USC Upstate. He said in order for the Cardinals to continue having successful games on both ends of the floor, they have to be mentally prepared in the days leading up to a game – something he said made the biggest difference in the Cardinals’ play against the Spartans (2-4) compared to Evansville.
Ball State (4-1) looks to build off this momentum when the red and white take the court in Worthen Arena against Arkansas-Pine Bluff (3-2) at 2 p.m. Nov. 24. Lewis believes the Cardinals’ fight against USC Upstate and Old Dominion proves they can.
“We’ve got to continue to lean on guys that have played college basketball, and they’ve got to continue to grow into their roles,” Lewis said.