Confidence. It's a feeling of self-assurance. It's what the Cardinals continue to search for as the team strives to find balance between offense and defense.
While Ball State Men's Basketball (14-14, 5-10 MAC) did have a stronger shooting night, the team couldn't seem to get a stop as Toledo's (22-6, 10-5 MAC) 34 rebounds would hand the Cardinals their third straight loss, 80-72.
"I thought Toledo played well, and I certainly give them credit," head coach James Whitford said. "We were more effective offensively in playing freer, and tonight it had its awkward moments. It was a little bit reckless, but the bottom line was we scored the ball better. We wanted to defend tonight and we couldn't get enough stops."
While the defense struggled, a somewhat hesitant offense took the court. Ball State made more shots from close than the Rockets, however, the overthinking and sparse shooting has put the Cardinals behind lately. The team shot 25-48 from field goal while Toledo went 28-57 from close. At three, Rockets shot 9-22 while the Cardinals went 6-14.
"We've been up tight on offense and we've been really struggling to score," Whitford said. "Against Central Michigan we had a ton of good possessions, but could not score. We seemed to be wound too tight...It was not pulsing and we needed to loosen up."
With shots not falling, Whitford said he believes that the internal pressure of having to do well and not getting results has begun to weigh on the team. A team that had high expectations in the beginning of the season is now sitting at the bottom of the Mid-American Conference standings with three games left in the regular season.
"It definitely has to do with having high expectations and not playing near as close as you should," Whitford said. "It's the pressure that you put on yourself and the guys are trying to have a good year. It's a grind, especially when you're not winning."
While the team feels the pressure and is struggling to find confidence individually, they don't feel like they are disconnected as a whole. Redshirt senior guard Tayler Persons said the team just needs to put it together.
"All of us, me included, need to change that," Persons said. "We believe in each other, talk with each other and there's no fighting. We just got to believe in each other."
Tipoff saw the Cardinals chasing a lead as Toledo would go up 10-4 in the first five minutes. Both teams were back and forth through the first as they shot heavy from the three. Toledo would end the half 5-13 from deep and Ball State 5-9. Sophomore forward Zach Gunn would down a three shot from outside the arc to cut Toledo's lead down to five, 41-36.
The second half saw the Rockets begin to take off. A 10-2 run around the seven-minute mark would put Toledo up by 12 and see them hold down a lead. The Cardinals were unable to down shots outside of the line before the final minute as seven of their 11 points in between the seven- and one-minute mark were on the line. A three ball by junior forward Kyle Mallers could've given Ball State a chance in the final minute, but it was turned over due to a foul. That play would seal the deal for the Cardinals.
In the loss, Persons led with 20 points, followed by sophomore guard Ishmael El-Amin with 11. Redshirt junior forward Tahjai Teague knocked in his 1,000th career point in the loss as well. Marreon Jackson and Jalen Sanford were the guys for the Rockets, laying in 19 and 18 points.
The Cardinals fell to 10th in the conference standings and are predicted to stay there. The team could finish as high as sixth and as low as last in this final run of the regular season. Any seed eight and above would give the Cardinals a home-court game in the first round of the MAC tournament.
"When you don't win it's psychologically hard," Whitford said. "It's not like it would've been different for our team last year where we have moments where we feel so much pressure on offense. The season is long and it's emotionally challenging for everyone."
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