The Ball State Cardinals (4-0) welcomed the Northern Iowa Panthers to Worthen Arena Saturday for a matchup between two mid-major teams that have high expectations this season. Head coach Brady Sallee knew that a game against a team of the Panthers’ caliber would test the Cardinals.
“You just learn what’s real about your team when you play opponents like that,” Sallee said. “Every possession mattered. Early in the season, we haven’t played in one of those yet, where every single possession is monumental.”
After coming out on top by a score of 75-64, Sallee said he likes what he’s learned about his team through four games of the season.
The Cardinals jumped out to an 11-4 lead within the first four minutes of the contest, fueled by a pair of junior Nyla Hampton layups. Northern Iowa responded with a 7-0 run of their own, including four points by junior Grace Boffeli, to tie the game just over a minute later. Boffeli became tough to contain all afternoon.
“[Boffeli] does a great job playing without the ball,” Sallee said. “She’s just a seasoned Division I college basketball post [player].”
Hampton would add two more layups, bringing Ball State a four-point lead after the first 10 minutes of play. Hampton said the shooters around her give her room to operate and make plays close to the basket.
“It’s reading gaps, and trying to make reads once I got down [inside],” Hampton said.
At the start of the second quarter, junior Ally Becki attempted to draw a charge on Boffeli and was shaken up after the play. While she spent the rest of the quarter on the bench, the Cardinals went to work without one of their leaders on the floor.
Hampton added another layup to bring her first-half total to 10, while sophomore Hana Mühl and junior Madelyn Bischoff added a pair of three-pointers. Sophomore Ana Barreto checked into the game halfway through the quarter and came up with five points, including a three-pointer to give the Cardinals a 35-28 lead going into the break.
Barreto has taken on a much bigger role than she had a season ago. She averaged just five minutes per game during the 2022-23 season. Through four games this season, she is averaging 18 minutes per game, and producing just under nine points per game. Sallee has turned to Barreto to be one of the first players off the bench. Barreto attributed this increased playing time to her growth starting last season.
“The preparation, to be ready when I have to step up and get my minutes,” Barreto said. “I just have to do whatever I have to do to help the team win.”
Sallee echoed that he also believes Barreto’s development began a year ago and that it’s her resolve through adversity that has her providing big minutes for the team.
“There were some moments where [Barreto] probably laid in her dorm room and said ‘I can’t do this,’” Salle said. “I have a great staff that put their arms around her and believed in her. We believed in her. We saw the big picture in her, and as long as she kept working, we knew this was coming.”
In the second half, Ball State began to knock down open looks from three-point range. With just two minutes gone by in the third, Hampton hit her first three-pointer in a Cardinal uniform. She said it was a relief to see one go through the net.
Bischoff is off to a scorching-hot start from three-point range so far this season, shooting 61 percent from behind the arch on 28 attempts. With five minutes gone in the third period, she hit her fourth three-pointer of the game to give the Cardinals a 47-34 lead. She finished the game 5-of-8 (63 percent) from three and 18 points.
Sallee described Bischoff as a “shot-maker” and added that the ball just finds her. He doesn’t have to draw up special plays to get her the wide-open looks.
Another Hampton three-pointer and a layup from junior Alex Richard gave the Cardinals a 14-point lead early in the fourth quarter, their largest lead of the game. The Panthers stayed in the game and eventually cut the deficit to just six with five minutes to play.
Becki, who was held scoreless in the first half, began to come alive late in the game. She began to do what she does so well: attack the basket and give her teammates open looks. She also converted on four free throw attempts to score eight of her 10 points in the fourth quarter. Becki added two assists as well and finished with five for the game.
A Hampton three-pointer—her third of the half—gave her 19 points and put Ball State up 10 with 47 seconds left. It was enough to secure victory for the Cardinals, and their first 4-0 start since the 2017 season. With more big games like this coming up, the Cardinals hope to continue to play to their standard each time, no matter who the opponent is.
“We [have] got to, every game, show our identity, and who we are,” Barreto said.
“We’re trying to make sure we’re making the right passes, making the right cuts,” Hampton said. “Making sure nobody takes us out of playing our game because we know that’s what is going to carry us in the long run.”
Ball State returns to action Wednesday, Nov. 22 on the road against IUPUI with tip-off scheduled for 2 p.m. Two days after the Jaguars, the Cardinals host No. 16 Notre Dame Worthen Arena. Tip-off is set for 5 p.m.
Contact Caleb Zuver via email at email@example.com or on X @zuves35.