Editor's note: Ball State players were not made available for comments post game.
Michael Lewis likened Ball State men’s basketball’s six-game losing streak to the trials he, the 12 players who suit up every game and all people experience in the game of life. The second-year head coach acknowledged that although the Cardinals are winless in Mid-American Conference (MAC) play and haven’t won a game in more than a month, no one is going to feel sorry for them.
He said no one is going to dig them out of the hole they’re in -- they have to do that themselves.
“It's tough to build confidence when you lose, but these guys are knocking on the door,” Lewis said. “Toledo is just a better basketball team than us right now.”
40 minutes of play came and went just the same as it has since December 16 for Ball State, with a loss. When the Rockets (10-6, 4-0 MAC) beat the Cardinals 77-72 in Savage Arena, the Cardinals fell to .500 for the first time this season.
Despite the loss, Lewis felt like Ball State played one of its most complete games of the season, evident from the eight lead changes and eight ties that took place over the course of the conference battle.
In fact, junior guard Jalin Anderson followed up his 21-point performance just three days earlier with a 25-point contest against the Rockets, shooting 9/9 to start things off and finishing 10/15. Additionally, after the Ball State bench scored a combined five points in its previous two outings, the Cardinals’ second unit dropped 13 against the Rockets, including eight points from redshirt junior center Ben Hendriks.
Lewis felt better about Hendriks’ output and freshman guard Trent Middleton Jr.’s first turn off the bench, but still wants to see more consistency out of the reserves.
However, inexperience in tight moments may have cost the Cardinals.
With just one minute left to play and Toledo up six points, junior forward Basheer Jihad nailed his second 3-pointer of the game to put the Rockets’ lead within one possession. After Toledo missed on its next possession, former Ball State guard Tyler Cochran grabbed an offensive rebound to keep the momentum in the Rockets’ favor.
Up next came a costly error from freshman forward Mason Jones, who felt he needed to foul rather than let Toledo’s possession play out with the shot clock still running. Lewis said while the blame for the Cardinals’ loss shouldn’t fall on Jones, he would have preferred if Ball State let the possession continue.
Redshirt freshman forward Javan Simmons sank both free throws to extend the Rockets’ lead to five, and after redshirt junior guard Davion Bailey chucked up a contested 3-pointer with 13 seconds left, Toledo’s victory was sealed. Lewis said it’s always hard to get open looks that late in a game that close, but felt the Cardinals’ execution on that possession was poor.
Less than two weeks ago, Lewis said Ball State needed to improve on its execution out of the huddle, and in the time since he has simplified the offensive play calling as much as he can to try to help the Cardinals digest what is being asked of them.
“We were better at times, but we were not consistent enough,” Lewis said. “That cost us; the mistakes we make are just absolute killers.”
Lewis felt the biggest issue in Ball State’s loss was a lack of presence in the post, particularly in the second half. The Cardinals allowed 11 offensive rebounds in the final 20 minutes of play, leading to 13 second chance points in the half.
“They imposed their physicality on us, and we just couldn't match it,” Lewis said.
On top of that, Jihad scored just two first half points after dropping a career-high 27 points and 16 rebounds in Ball State’s previous outing against Akron, but he finished with 13 points and five blocks.
It was a game of runs for each side, but strong shooting from the junior guard duo Ra’Heim Moss (24 points) and Daunte Maddox Jr. (21 points) propelled the Rockets ahead in the end. The two leading scorers shot 6/12 from 3-point land, while Bailey, Ball State’s go-to shooter from beyond the arc, finished 3/11 with 13 points.
The Cardinals (8-8, 0-4 MAC) stay on the road for their next contest, a 7 p.m. matchup against Eastern Michigan (8-8, 1-3 MAC) Jan. 16 in Ypsilanti, Michigan.