With 1:10 remaining in the game Ball State’s Frannie Frazier drew a charge against Middle Tennessee State’s Alex Johnson. Frazier was quickly bombarded by her teammates as she danced to the other end of the floor, defending her team’s seven point lead.
It was those “winning plays” that head coach Brady Sallee said aided his team to a 69-60 victory over Middle Tennessee State (18-13) in the first round of the Women's National Invitational Tournament (WNIT) Thursday night.
“At the end, we just had to go make winning plays against a team that’s extremely tough,” Sallee said. “They don’t let anything happen easily. We just toughed one out.”
It didn’t come easily though. The jitters of the tournament were apparent as a sloppy first quarter ensued for both teams. With missed layups, turnovers and a lackluster first quarter field goal percentage of 18 percent, Ball State (25-6) found itself down two after 10 minutes.
“I give Middle a lot of credit for it,” Sallee said. “I don’t know if there were too many uncontested ones.”
The Cardinals finished the game shooting 31 percent from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc.
The second quarter looked more like Cardinal basketball with suffocating defense turning into offense. After forcing a Lady Raider turnover, junior Carmen Grande went up strong to the bucket, finishing with contact and completing the 3-point play to give the Cardinals the lead early in the quarter. Senior forward Moriah Monaco hit two big 3-point field goals in the quarter to help the Cardinals gain momentum.
Ball State’s defense was too much for Middle Tennessee to handle, forcing 18 turnovers resulting in a whopping 26 points for the Cardinals.
With Grande — who ranks second in the nation in assists —conducting the offense, Ball State looked in good shape. But she did more than just score in the win. After corralling the rebound and taking one dribble, she caught the defense sleeping, and delivered a bullet of a pass to a cutting Frannie Frazier who layed it in, stretching the Ball State lead to six going into the half.
The momentum stayed with Sallee’s team in the opening minutes of half number two as Destiny Washington finished at the rim with the foul. With 5:43 left in quarter, Grande chased down a Lady Raider errant pass, blowing by anyone in blue and getting another 3-point play for the Cardinals, pushing the lead to 11.
Grande would end the night as the team’s leading scorer with 15 points.
But the Lady Raiders weren’t going away quietly. A Cardinal offensive foul followed by a three from Abbey Sissom cut the Cardinal lead to four with 2:07 left in the third. On the ensuing possession, a foul called on Grande sent Worthen Arena into an uproar. Ball State savored a 4-point lead going into the fourth.
Sallee’s team took advantage of the physical defense the Lady Raiders were playing, getting a huge boost in the scoring department after going 27-of- 38 from the free-throw line.
Middle Tennessee’s Jess Louro hit a 3-point shot with 28.4 seconds left in the game to cut the lead to five, but the Lady Raiders would get no closer as the Cardinals iced the game, hitting free throws down the stretch.
The Cardinals bounced back in a big way after a disappointingly early exit from the Mid-American Conference Tournament last Wednesday in a loss to Western Michigan.
“After disappointing things happen to this team, we usually bounce back pretty well,” Monaco said. “We all know we can play better. Just looking at Wednesday down in Cleveland, we all know that we didn’t put out the performance we needed to.”
It only gets more challenging for Ball State as it hosts Purdue at home on Sunday in the second round of the WNIT.
Ball State defeated Purdue 66-60 in non-conference play earlier this season.
Sallee and company is just happy to continue playing basketball in March.
“When you got a team that’s hungry to just play again, that’s fun as a coach at this time of year,” Sallee said. “On top of just looking forward to playing again on Sunday when Purdue’s on the other side of it, it feels like March.”
Contact Elizabeth Wyman with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter at @_ElizabethWyman.