In a Saturday night showdown in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the score was as stable as a seesaw, there were two consistencies: Western Michigan's Brandon Johnson and the Cardinals' struggle to guard him.
The redshirt junior threw down a career-high 29 points and made 86 percent of his shots. His efforts could not be stopped, as Ball State Men's Basketball (13-10, 6-4 MAC) held close with Western Michigan (10-12, 3-6 MAC) until the end, but the Broncos pulled away 68-64.
"I thought we played the right way and shared the ball, but I don't think we defended," head coach James Whitford said. "We didn't defend with the same intensity we have all year. That's what really caught up to us."
Specifically, in the paint is where the Cardinals' defense struggled to get stops. The Broncos knocked down 62 percent of their shots from the field, shooting 26-for-42. Ball State struggled to play clean, as it committed 21 fouls to Western's 14. The Cardinals were also outrebounded 32-23, 29-17 on the defensive end.
"We just need to get back to being ourselves," Whitford said. "We've been a great defensive team all year."
Saturday MAC scoreboard
Akron - 59, Eastern Michigan - 58
Ohio - 77, Miami (Ohio) - 46
Bowling Green - 85, Toledo - 83
Northern Illinois - 57, Kent State - 54
Buffalo - 65, Central Michigan - 60
On the court, the team felt it lacked a sense of communication and physicality. In freshman guard Luke Bumbalough's perspective, a team that is usually talkative on the court was strangely silent.
"We just didn't talk as much as we usually do," Bumbalough said. "We're usually a really good communicative team, but tonight, we didn't talk as much. We'll be good though."
Despite defensive struggles, the team surged on the offensive side of the ball. Led off by Bumbalough, Ball State caught fire from outside the arc. The Cardinals drained a MAC-season-high 12 shots from deep, finishing the night shooting 44 percent from deep. Bumbalough recorded a team-high 15 points and went 5-for-8 from deep.
His impressions from deep came in key moments for Ball State, including a shot to put the Cardinals ahead by two possessions with less than three minutes left in the game. Bumbalough said knocking down big shots is what he's here to do.
"My team has refined in me. They were helping off me and found me to make good, unselfish plays," Bumbalough said. "I made sure I was using my legs so those shots would fall and staying focused when the game got close. I was making sure the atmosphere and distractions weren't getting to me."
Alongside Bumbalough, redshirt freshman guard Jarron Coleman had a strong performance on the offensive end with 14 points and a team-high five assists. His eight points in the second half, shooting 50 percent from the field, proved crucial when the game began to come to a close.
"Down in crunch time, we tried to do our best on the offensive end," Coleman said. "We shouldn't have been in the situation anyway because we should've had the same intensity the entire game, but we tried to turn it on late. We did great on offense, but we just needed to get stops."
The Cardinals' offensive surge put them in the thick of things throughout the entire game, but the defensive edge allowed Western to take that extra step forward, winning another narrow conference matchup. The Broncos have knocked off Miami (Ohio), Kent State and now Ball State by four points. Ball State, on the other hand, is 1-4 in games deiced by four points or fewer.
"Down the stretch, it's every play," Coleman said. "We came out of the last media timeout saying every possession matters. That's what we try to work on each game. Shoot, this is our third game where we've lost right at the end. We're trying to get better on finishing."
Other standouts for the Cardinals include redshirt senior forward Tahjai Teague, who had 13 points, four assists and eight rebounds, senior forward Kyle Mallers, who had eight points and six rebounds, and junior guard Ishmael El-Amin, who had nine points. Ball State will face Northern Illinois at home Tuesday.
Contact Jack Williams with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @jackgwilliams.