"I like my team and we have a chance to be really dangerous here down the stretch."
That is what head coach James Whitford said after Ball State Men's Basketball (14-11, 5-7 MAC) picked up it's third straight win over Akron (14-11, 6-6 MAC), 57-56. After going 1-5 before the BYE week in games decided by less than six points, the Cardinals have gone 2-0 in games decided by one point in their last three.
"That's just how basketball goes," Redshirt senior Tayler Persons said. "Sometimes the ball bounces your way. We had some unlucky ones and now we're on the right side of a couple. If we could win by one for the rest of the year I'll be happy."
One thing that has allowed the team to pick up momentum late is their depth and composure. For the second time in conference play, redshirt junior Tahjai Teague, playing with four fouls, spent minimal time on the bench spending the final 12 minutes on the floor. He would finish with nine points, nine pulldowns and his fouling number would not go up.
"I just try to play the game," Teague said. "When I get to that point, I just try to play straight up, vertically and just glad we came out with the win. I've been playing my whole life with fouls, so it feels normal."
Whitford said that he tries to get as many minutes out of Teague is he can. The forward averages around 25 minutes per game and has only fouled out three times over the course of 25 games this season.
"There's nothing that drives me crazier when you sit a guy for the final five or four minutes and he finishes the game with four fouls," Whitford said. "Congratulations you had him in the final minutes, but he only played for 16 minutes. If we didn't have Tahjai in the final possession, but that wouldn't have broke us. In the 25 minutes he had on the court, he dramatically impacted the game."
First half saw the Cardinals chasing a lead throughout. Daniel Utomi would be the guy for Akron as he would down 15 in the first half to lead all scorers. Both teams struggled from deep throughout as the Cardinals went 1-10 and the Zips 3-15. Halftime saw the Zips up by eight at 29-21.
In the second half, the Cardinals were hot off the start as a Persons three would spark a 6-0 run for the Cardinals. Ball State would come close, but Utomi would pull help Akron pull away again around the eight minute mark. He would finish with 21 points.
The final minutes saw the Cardinals go into a scoring drought with three minutes left and the Zips up five. However, redshirt sophomore guard K.J. Walton would go 4-0 at the line to pull Ball State within one. A jumper by Persons and a layup by senior center Trey Moses would help the Cardinals propel to their fifth conference win.
The Cardinals hung close with the top statistical defensive team in the MAC, holding Akron to 56 points, 13 below their average. The Cardinals also out-rebounded the Zips 49-37, with 37 pulldowns coming on the defensive end of the court.
"We just had to stay focused throughout," Persons said. "They're the best defensive team in the MAC, statistically speaking, and we just had to keep going at them. We're pretty good defensively too and we held them to 56."
Compared to the first half of the MAC season, the Cardinals finishes are the exact opposite of where they started off. Sitting one game outside of second place in the MAC West, the team is ready to compete in a conference that is up for grabs.
"It's just such a fine line and it's so competitive," Whitford said. "I do think we're better now, but it's cause we got Brachen back and that's significant for us. We have Zach out, but by next game, he should be back. Pretty soon we'll have Ish back and you only have to be three or points better in this league."
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