In perhaps the most intense game of the season for Ball State men’s basketball, the Cardinals lost their fourth straight game, falling 71-65 to Mid-American Conference (MAC) rival Central Michigan. Ultimately, the Chippewas (8-6, 1-1 MAC) forcing four turnovers in the last four Ball State (8-6, 0-2 MAC) possessions of the game was the most deciding factor in the final minute.
However, strong defense, 48 combined free throws and one-sided 3-point shooting were the real stories of the full 40 minutes.
Defense wins championships (and games)
After the opening tip, both the Chippewas and Cardinals seemed to put a major focus on defense, as Ball State was unable to hit a shot from the field for the first four minutes.
While Cardinals head coach Michael Lewis clapped and shouted encouragement as it pertained to Ball State’s defense early on, he also screamed in disdain about the Cardinals’ ball movement.
Each side took a break during a media timeout with 16 minutes left in the first half, and on the first possession out of the timeout, freshman forward Mason Jones drilled a corner 3-pointer after a few passes around the perimeter to give Ball State the lead.
Central Michigan went more than four minutes without a score thanks to Ball State’s quick man defense. In particular, junior forward Basheer Jihad seemed much more focused on post defense than he did in the Cardinals’ Jan. 2 loss to Kent State.
While Ball State held the lead for almost half of the first 20 minutes, Central Michigan got hot from beyond the arc thanks to sophomore Aidan Rubio coming in off the bench and drilling two 3-pointers, including one to tie the game at 17 with six and a half remaining. The Chippewas became the aggressor, stopping the Cardinals on the next possession and then scoring to take their first lead since the 15:35 mark.
Most of Central Michigan’s success on defense in the first half came via a zone defense with constant movement making it difficult for the Cardinals to move the ball as much as Lewis would have liked. The Chippewas forced six turnovers in the first half, including three out of Jihad.
Junior guard Jalin Anderson capped off a huge possession with just less than four minutes left in the first half, as Ball State risked a shot clock violation before he sank his first 3-pointer for the lead at the buzzer. Central Michigan fired right back with a breakaway dunk to tie the game at 23, then drilled two 3-pointers with less than 2:30 to go.
Each side’s offenses came alive at the end of the half, but Central Michigan came out ahead 31-29. With four lead changes and five ties in the half, it seemed whichever defense lost focus or energy first would be the team to fall behind, especially from distance.
In fact, it was Ball State’s inability to make key stops late in the second half that prevented them from victory.
Focus on fouls
The biggest difference in the first half for Ball State, however, came down to fouls. The Cardinals drew 11 fouls in the first half and even started 6/6 from the charity stripe.
With more than seven minutes left until halftime, Central Michigan fouled redshirt junior forward Mickey Pearson Jr. for the visitor’s 10th team foul, and Ball State had a two-shot bonus for the rest of the half. The red and white were made nine of 11 from the free-throw line in the first 20 minutes.
The second half started as a mirror image of much of the first half, a foul from Central Michigan leading to two made free throws by Ball State to tie the game. After Jihad drove in for a layup to take the lead less than a minute later, Rubio once again drained a 3-pointer to snatch back the lead from the Chippewas.
As the rest of the second half unfolded, Ball State actually committed just as many fouls as the Chippewas, taking away the slight advantage the Cardinals had in the first half. But both sides excessively fouled in the second half, with each squad finding themselves in the bonus with almost nine minutes remaining.
All in all, Ball State shot 25/31 from the free throw line as compared to the Chippewas 14/17. However, it was 3-point shooting and turnovers that ultimately gave Central Michigan the advantage and the win.
About five minutes later, Rubio hit another 3-pointer to give Central Michigan an 8-0 run during a 2:20 stretch in the second half, and the Chippewas were fired up as it forced a timeout from Ball State. Lewis was fired up too, just not in the same way.
After nearly eight minutes without a field goal, Bailey nailed his third 3-pointer of the game as Ball State fans erupted and remained standing for the following defensive stand. Ball State may have forced a turnover on that possession, but the Cardinals couldn’t capitalize when Jihad missed a dunk, and redshirt junior Ben Hendriks picked up a foul to put Central Michigan at the free throw line thanks to the bonus.
The noise inside Worthen Arena only got louder when Ball State shortened Central Michigan’s once 10-point lead to four with eight minutes to go. It was another 3-pointer from Central Michigan, this time courtesy of junior guard Derrick Butler, that slowed the Cardinals’ momentum.
Again, after Jihad sank two free throws to cut the Chippewas lead to three points, graduate student guard Brian Taylor responded with a 3-pointer to further extend the Central Michigan lead with less than six minutes to go.
After multiple drives where Ball State couldn’t stop Central Michigan when it counted, the Cardinals’ defense forced a turnover with two minutes left but couldn’t capitalize on offense.
However, on Central Michigan’s next possession, Jihad drew a charge and then a shooting foul on offense with 50 seconds left. One made free throws later and Ball State only trailed by two points.
Next, Ball State earned a stop on defense but immediately turned it over on offense. Since Central Michigan stole the ball with just 25 seconds remaining, there was no shot clock and many would’ve guessed the Cardinals would start fouling.
Instead, Ball State came out in trap defense and forced junior guard Anthony Pritchard out of bounds with 21 seconds left. On Ball State’s next possession, Anderson dribbled around the post for seven seconds before the Chippewas came away with the steal and sealed victory once the foul game commenced.
Along with the four forced turnovers in the final minute, Central Michigan forced seven turnovers in the second half and 13 total.
Ball State stays at home for its next contest, hosting MAC foe Akron Tuesday, January 9, at 7 p.m.