'This team and this moment:' An acclaimed Ball State women's basketball team looks to use experience and confidence to win MAC title

Junior Nyla Hampton yells for movement Jan. 21 against Toledo at Worthen Arena. Hampton achieved 1000 points during the first half. Andrew Berger.
Junior Nyla Hampton yells for movement Jan. 21 against Toledo at Worthen Arena. Hampton achieved 1000 points during the first half. Andrew Berger.

CLEVELAND – The last time Nyla Hampton and Brady Sallee were in Cleveland, Ohio, at the same time, they were competing against one another. One was wearing the red and white of Ball State, shouting instructions to the Cardinals on the sideline as the other was matched up against said Cardinals in the brown and orange of Bowling Green. 

By the time 40 minutes came and went, the Falcons defeated Ball State 70-61 in a Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament semifinal. As Hampton’s future teammates shed tears after failing to reach the conference championship game for the second-straight season, the 2022-23 MAC Defensive Player of the Year was a key cog in Bowling Green’s trip to the Fab Four of the Women’s National Invitational Tournament (WNIT) after falling to Toledo in the MAC championship.

Now, the two are on the same team, vying for Ball State women’s basketball’s first MAC title since 2009. Sallee, a 12th-year head coach at Ball State, said Hampton’s comfort playing against high-level competition was one of the biggest reasons he recruited her so aggressively when she was in the transfer portal last offseason. 

“You have to want it, and you have to believe that you can,” Hampton said. “Who's going to play the hardest? Who's going to grind it out? That's what it's going to be to make or break this.” 

Hampton, a junior guard transfer, recently won her second-straight Mid-American Conference (MAC) Defensive Player of the Year award. Hampton said she has been defensive minded since she was young. 

During her time playing basketball before college, she said coaches always encouraged her to control what she could control. 

“One thing I can always control is my defense, the effort I give there and the way I play on that side of the ball,” Hampton said.

She said switching to Ball State’s system and mindset wasn’t that difficult of a challenge, as she has been able to quickly adapt to any system she has played for. However, Ball State’s shift from a heavy offense focus last season to a more balanced focus on defense this season was made easier through buy-in from a fellow 2024 All-MAC Defensive Team member. 

“It helps a lot being able to play with a player like Ally Becki,” Hampton said. “She’s a competitive kid, and she wants to do whatever it takes to win.” 

Becki additionally made the All-MAC First Team for the 2023-24 season, with Hampton earning a second team nod while junior Madelyn Bischoff was named to the third team. Rounding out MAC awards, redshirt senior Annie Rauch won the conference Sixth Person of the Year honor. 

Sallee felt these honors wouldn’t be possible if not for the depth Ball State has, crediting players such as junior Alex Richard as huge contributors despite not earning an end-of-season honor. 

Hampton said she knew as early as the summer that the Cardinals would have next-level chemistry across the board that correlated to wins during the regular season. She credited Ball State’s depth as one of the biggest reasons Ball State finished with a program-best 27-4 record.

“It could be anybody's night,” Hampton said. “It could be four people's night one night or it could be two people’s night one night. We have a system that doesn't force anyone to have to put everything on their back.” 

Only 13 teams in all of Division I women’s basketball have more wins than Ball State, with more than half of those squads occupying spots in the AP Top 25 Poll, and only six teams in the nation have fewer losses than Ball State this season. Sallee said the 27 wins the Cardinals earned this season have contributed to a confidence that drives Ball State toward the success achieved on the court. 

“I think there’s a select few who know they can win it. We feel like we’re one of those,” Sallee said. “This time of year, there's a lot of hope in the air. With a select few, there's an air of confidence. We've got the latter.”

Hampton said she has the utmost confidence in the Cardinals’ poise under pressure, as five of the 14 currently wearing red and white were with Ball State in the 2022 MAC Championship game against Buffalo. Additionally, throughout her lone season with the Cardinals she has seen her teammates keep calm against stout competition like UConn, Notre Dame and Toledo. 

With that in mind, her biggest keys to victory for Ball State in the MAC Tournament is to play with heart and to play together.

“It’s March,” Hampton said. “It’s tourney time. There’s gonna be so much adversity, there's going to be crazy things that are going to happen that we can’t control.” 

Sallee called the experience the Cardinals bring to tournament play “priceless.” That takes any extra preparation he has had to do in the past to get his teams ready for the MAC Tournament out of the equation. Instead, he and Ball State are able to focus more on traditional practice and game preparation.

“We've all been there, we've all done it, and so it’s a no brainer,” Sallee said. “It's just what has to happen for us to feel like we've capitalized on the talent we have.”

The No. 2 seeded Cardinals’ (16-2 MAC) first round contest is set for approximately 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 13, against No. 7 seed Ohio (11-18, 8-10 MAC) in the third contest of the day. 

“Teams deserve the top of that ladder,” Sallee said. “The way this is set up, just one of them gets to the top. This is about this team and this moment.” 

Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at kyle.smedley@bsu.edu or on X @KyleSmedley_.


More from The Daily

This Week's Digital Issue

Loading Recent Classifieds...