The last time Ball State junior Basheer Jihad talked to the media in Worthen Arena, he didn’t care he tied his career high of 29 points against Miami (10-10, 4-4 Mid-American Conference (MAC)). He was focused solely on the fact that the Redhawks took the win and celebrated in the Cardinals’ home arena.
However, with Saturday’s 81-71 victory over Northern Illinois, he was in a much better mood.
“I think we're improving. Obviously winning three out of our last four shows improvement,” he said. “I feel like we have a long way to go. We got some tougher teams coming up… so we know it's not gonna get any easier.”
The contest between the Cardinals (11-9, 3-5 MAC) and the Huskies (6-13, 0-7 MAC) started with limited offense. After multiple missed shots by both teams, junior Mickey Pearson drained a 3-pointer. Following that score, the offenses started rolling.
Ball State found success due to its ability to share the basketball. Earlier this week, Cardinals' head coach Micheal Lewis was not happy with how they practiced in that category.
“I didn't like where we were in practice the other day and I told him I have one dribble,” he said. “So when you only get one dribble, you gotta move bodies. You gotta set screens, and the ball has to move side to side.”
However, Ball State seemed to understand the message as the gray and red set screens and found open shooters on offensive possessions. The Cardinals ended the win with 16 assists, 10 more than the Huskies.
Throughout the game, Jihad showed why he is Ball State’s leading scorer. The 6-3 forward showed aggression and attempted multiple dunks. He finished the win with his seventh double-double – 28 points and 14 rebounds – and his ninth game over 20 points.
Yet Jihad’s performance was just one factor for Ball State’s success. Junior Davion Bailey followed with 13 points and freshman Trent Middleton recorded 10. Middleton has been the Cardinals’ main bench player this season and found success when they needed him to check in.
In the win, he went 3-for-4 and went 2-for-2 (100 percent) from 3-point range.
“I'm just learning and working every day,” he said. “Coaches are on top of me and give me an opportunity.”
While the Cardinals controlled most of the opening half, the second half was different as they were outscored 45-42.
“We got to grow in that area as far as closing out games,” Lewis said. “We quit playing, we can’t execute, and we quit guarding.”
Even with this, it seemed that the Huskies were not able to gain momentum. However, in the final minutes, they did. With four minutes left in the contest, Ball State led 73-57. Yet they only led 75-69 inside the final two minutes.
“When you've got a group of guys that only some of them have experience, unfortunately, you have to go through some of these growing pains,” Lewis said. “Winning takes what winning takes. There's no shortcutting success.”
The victory gives Ball State their 11th win of the season. With a win streak, the Cardinals hope that it can provide some momentum going into the next stretch of the season. However, Lewis is taking it one game and one day at a time.
“I'm just trying to get through today,” Lewis said. “With where we are and what we're trying to do, I didn't know we played Bowling Green on Tuesday until I was delivered a scouting report before the game. That's how focused I was on today.
“That's why we have assistant coaches. They can work on what's next. I've been completely focused on our team and what we have to do to try to continue to get better to win games.”
As the second-year head coach alluded to, the Cardinals will face Bowling Green (14-6, 5-3 MAC) in Muncie on Tuesday, Jan. 30. The game is set for 7 p.m.
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