When the clock dips under one minute in a basketball game, the only thing that matters is talent. Usually, that means each team runs out its five starters.
But the best five at the end of Ball State men’s basketball's 74-70 loss to Akron included two players off the bench—redshirt freshman forward Tahjai Teague and junior swingman Sean Sellers.
“We were trying to find the right matchups for us,” Head Coach James Whitford said. “[Akron senior center Isaiah Johnson]’s so good at the offensive end that you have to find a way to take advantage of him at the other end, otherwise it’s just suicide.”
Teague led the Cardinals with 19 points and was second on the team with 30 minutes played, but he didn’t start. Still, he was asked to match up with Johnson, the Mid-American Conference Player of the Year.
“[Teague]’s still kind of scratching the surface of where he’s going to be,” Whitford said. “I look at [Akron players] Kwan Cheatham and Isaiah Johnson and I think about Tahjai Teague as a freshman and Trey Moses as a sophomore. … I like to think both those guys can both be all-conference players.”
Ball State starters
Shooting: 9-31 (29.0 percent)
3-point shooting: 7-19 (36.8 percent)
Ball State bench
Shooting: 14-25 (56.0 percent)
3-point shooting: 6-10 (60.0 percent)
Including Teague, three of Ball State’s top four scorers came in off the bench. Junior guard Jeremie Tyler finished third with 11 points and Sellers tied for fourth with 9 points.
Part of it is by design — the Cardinals score 79.0 points per game, but only Persons and senior forward Franko House average double figures. The rest of their points are spread fairly evenly between the five players, who score between 6.9 and 9.8 points per game.
“We have a great group of guys that start the game, and I came in there just trying to follow the game plan,” Teague said. “Just do as coach said, and if I’m open — shoot it.”
The flip side of the Cardinals’ bench scoring 41 points is that the starters only scored 29. In the first half, the five starters combined for just nine points on 3-16 shooting.
Whitford said part of the problem was that redshirt sophomore guard Tayler Persons, who finished the regular season second in the MAC with 5.0 assists per game, wasn’t at full strength.
Persons was injured in the Cardinals’ 66-63 win over Western Michigan Thursday, and Whitford said he spent eight hours in the hospital. Akron head coach Keith Dambrot was amazed Persons was in at all.
“Man, I mean, if Persons can play with that injury, then he's got to be one of the toughest guys in America,” Dambrot said.
Even when the starters got going in the second half, the bench often played a role.
With 10:30 left in the second half, for example, Johnson drove down the court for the Zips, but Sellers sprinted in from behind for a massive block. Junior guard Francis Kiapway drained a three on the other end to pull Ball State within two, 47-45.
Kiapway finished second on the team with 12 points, the only starter to clear double digits. Tyler, though, said they weren't trying to show up the first-stringers.
“When we were open we just shot it, and it was falling for us today,” Tyler said. “We just happened to score more points than the starters but it doesn’t matter. It was just so that we could win the game most of all, really.”
With the loss, Ball State is eliminated from the MAC Tournament. The Cardinals are waiting to find out if they’ll get a postseason bid.