Editor's Note: Trent Middleton Jr.'s score total was incorrect, as was the number of Cardinals in double digits. This has since been corrected.
When Jalin Anderson, Trent Middleton Jr., Jurica Zagorsak and a handful of Ball State men’s basketball personnel swarmed Don Shondell Practice Center in the bowels of Worthen Arena, the three Cardinals had already gone through a few hours of practice and training earlier in the day. However, the trio took the floor complete with a giant bluetooth speaker blasting music and multiple racks holding basketballs to put in extra time.
After all, it was less than 48 hours before Ball State traveled to Kalamazoo for a Mid-American Conference (MAC) contest against Western Michigan. And it was less than 48 hours after the Cardinals lost to Bowling Green in a home contest.
In that 81-72 loss, Anderson turned the ball over nine times and sat the bench for seven minutes in the second half, watching as the Cardinals failed to mount a comeback against the Falcons.
All season, Anderson has made it clear that his main priority is to win. That’s exactly what he helped Ball State do against Western Michigan, dropping 20 points with just one turnover in a 77-67 triumph. However, he recognized that he let his emotions get the best of him against Bowling Green, leading to poor play.
“I had a come to Jesus meeting,” Anderson said. “I prayed, cleared my head, let it go and had a great conversation with coach [Michael Lewis].”
In almost every post-game press conference or media appearance of any kind, Anderson takes a moment to thank God and pronounce his faith. After defeating the Broncos, he did the same.
“I’m only playing for Him,” Anderson said. “I’m playing for the man upstairs. I just give it my all.”
The junior guard, who previously played at Loyola Marymount, said his faith keeps him calm on the court. It helps him bounce back from performances like that against Bowling Green and turn in a showing like that against Western Michigan.
Lewis, the Cardinals’ second-year head coach, said the entire team has grown in their ability to move on from results.
“It's like being a parent in a way; you can't bulldoze everybody's obstacles and adversity, you've got to try to help guide these guys to navigate when the adversity happens, because it's going to happen,” Lewis said. “If you can't handle adversity in a basketball game, how are you really going to handle adversity when the real stuff happens in life?
“It's a Saturday afternoon in February and we got to hoop today. That’s pretty good, let's not take it too serious.”
The Broncos (8-14, 5-5 MAC) had lost two in a row after starting conference play 2-0, and despite being a 1.5-point favorite prior to the tip, Ball State (12-10, 4-6 MAC) ensured that skid continued with a wire-to-wire victory.
The first half may have been the best-played half of basketball this season for Ball State. The Cardinals led Western Michigan for the entire half and closed out the first 20 minutes on a 13-0 run.
Ball State led 39-22, with 22 points being the least amount of points allowed in a half for the Cardinals this season against a Division-I opponent. Lewis felt it was the best defensive effort in a half the Cardinals have given all season, crediting his roster with recognizing personnel and defending well in the paint.
Ball State, coming off 40 points allowed in the paint to Bowling Green, surrendered just eight down low in the first half. Perhaps more impressive, the Cardinals only turned the ball over three times in the first half compared to Western Michigan’s 12. Ball State ended the game with just seven turnovers while forcing 16 out of the Broncos.
While Ball State cruised to a double-digit victory, Western Michigan did win the second half 45-38. Just like he said after the Cardinals’ previous loss to the Falcons, Lewis once again noted that Ball State has to do a better job competing for a full 40 minutes.
The Broncos cut the lead to 10 points for the closest margin of the second half with less than four minutes to go, riding a near four-minute scoring drought from the Cardinals. When sophomore guard JaVaughn Hannah banked in a 3-pointer with 30 seconds to go, Ball State’s lead was cut to single digits for the first time in the second half, and was then shortened to eight points after a 3-pointer from sophomore guard Jefferson De La Cruz Monegro with 20 seconds left, but it was too little, too late for Western Michigan.
Although Ball State had four players in double-digit scoring, including 18 from junior forward Basheer Jihad, the Broncos nearly matched it with three of their own. De La Cruz Monegro led all scorers with 21 points.
One of the Cardinals’ biggest offensive threats was Middleton, who earned just his third start of his collegiate career and finished with 13 points. Lewis talked about the freshman guard’s growth in maturity throughout the season, thinking back to previous contests against Akron and Eastern Michigan in which Middleton was a healthy scratch, something he felt was a wake-up call to the Philadelphia native.
“I think it got him refocused on what we're looking for and what's really important to becoming a good college player,” Lewis said. “They've got to embrace that journey of improvement.”
Referencing that small group workout in which he competed alongside Middleton less than 48 hours prior, Anderson said he sees a lot of potential in his fellow backcourt member.
“Getting a little help from Trent is a reason why we're going up right now,” Anderson said.
Coming off their third straight road win, the Cardinals return to action Tuesday, Feb. 6, against Ohio (12-10, 6-4 MAC) at Worthen Arena in Muncie, Indiana, at 7 p.m.