When Basheer Jihad picked up his fourth foul with nearly 14 minutes left to play in a Mid-American Conference (MAC) men’s basketball contest between Ball State and Eastern Michigan, the Cardinals led by just three points.
The junior forward wasn’t just playing against his brother, Yusuf, and in front of the entire Jihad family, but he was trying to help guide Ball State to its first victory since Dec. 10, 2023. As Basheer headed to the bench, head coach Michael Lewis put his hands on his head.
Not only does Jihad lead Ball State with more than 18 points per game, but Lewis said Jihad anchors the Cardinals defensively, too. He didn’t know how the rest of the roster would respond in the No. 1 option’s absence.
“Very easily these guys could have pitched a tent,” Lewis said. “These guys stuck together, and we did a really good job of executing without Basheer.”
In fact, Ball State continued to build on a 17-4 run throughout the middle of the second half and cruised to a 76-62 victory, snapping a six-game losing streak and earning the first MAC win in five games.
A week after describing the Cardinals as “desperate” for a win, Jihad called the win “a stepping stone” for Ball State moving forward. Broadcasters for the game in Ypsilanti, Michigan, called the contest “must win” for each side.
In the first half alone, there were seven lead changes and five ties. In the end, there were 11 lead changes and six ties.
This tiny discrepancy between the MAC rivals was even reflected in the spread by Draftkings, favoring the Cardinals by just 1.5 points.
Although the Cardinals led by as many as six points in the first half, junior forward Yusef Jihad, Basheer Jihad’s brother, hit a long 3-pointer for the Eagles to cut Ball State’s lead to three points heading into halftime.
Jihad said he was competing to win, no doubt, but took time to soak in the fifth all-time clash between he and his older brother.
“It means a lot,” Jihad said. “There’s not a lot of guys with the opportunity to play against their sibling, so it’s a blessing.”
Right out of the break, sophomore guard Orlando Lovejoy hit another three-ball to knot the game up at 32. To try and rite the ship after the first half, Lewis told the Cardinals they needed to stop settling for 3-point shots and start going for more layups. On the defensive end, he told the Cardinals to pick up more rebounds and force more turnovers.
Fast forward 20 minutes, and Ball State turned its 40 percent first half shooting to 60 percent second half shooting.
Even better for Lewis, the Cardinals’ defense forced 15 turnovers, including nine in the second half. Holding Eastern Michigan to 62 points, it was the Cardinals’ best defensive effort since their 67-58 win against Bellarmine Dec. 2, 2023.
“These guys have been knocking on that door,” Lewis said. “It's good to see them get rewarded with the effort that they've been playing with.”
Lewis awards a dog bone to the Cardinal with the most deflections on defense after each game, and he said Jalin Anderson earned it against the Eagles. In fact, Lewis felt the Cardinals’ defensive intensity was the best it has been in MAC play.
To try and inspire an increase in effort on defense, Lewis has focused on showing the Cardinals clips of “dead hands,” or a player with hands down at their side on defense, when watching film. With Bailey sitting to his right, Lewis used him as an example of someone who he noticed “standing with his hands on his hips like he’s hanging out at the mall” in previous games.
“I've been up his ass for about a week now about him becoming more of a consistent player and what that takes,” Lewis said. “He's a good player now, but he's got so much more he can do.”
Bailey responded in kind against the Eagles, scoring a career-high 23 points and earning praise from Lewis for his effort on the defensive end. The Indianapolis native said while he needed Lewis’ stern leadership as a wake-up call, the real reason for his improved play came from within.
“I gotta want it for myself,” Bailey said. “I still gotta look in the mirror and push myself every day.”
Lewis said it’s his job to be there for Bailey on the days where he is lacking self-motivation, of which the second-year head coach feels there are too many. In fact, Lewis said that’s the key for all of the Cardinals to become the players they want to be and take their games to the next level.
Four Ball State players finished in double figures, but Lewis wasn’t happy with Ball State’s final three minutes of play. Despite a 14-point victory, both he and Bailey felt the Cardinals needed to finish the game as strong as they started it.
“It's something we've been working for all year,” Bailey said. “But we still got more work to do. We didn't play our best game, but we took some steps forward.”
Ball State returns to action Saturday, Jan. 20, for a 2 p.m. contest against Miami (OH) (8-9, 2-3 MAC) in Muncie, Indiana.