Coming off a 17-point victory on Senior Night Tuesday, a strong veteran presence was key for Ball State Men’s Basketball (18-13, 11-7 MAC) Friday at the Convocation Center in DeKalb, Illinois. Led by 33 points from their three senior players, the Cardinals defeated Northern Illinois (18-13, 11-7 MAC) in their regular season finale 75-54.
Ball State earns a BYE to next week’s Mid-American Conference Tournament in Cleveland, Ohio, entering the tournament as the No. 3 seed. The Cardinals also clinched their third MAC West title over the past five seasons.
“It’s a big deal,” head coach James Whitford said. “[Redshirt senior forward Tahjai] Teague kind of rounded into form tonight. He hadn’t been playing as well for the last four or five games — I thought he was fabulous at both ends tonight.”
In Friday’s win, Teague led the Cardinals both in points (18) and rebounds (11). Finishing his fifth season with Ball State, Teague said the victory provided a great boost of excitement for the Cardinals, especially for his younger teammates.
“This was our championship game,” Teague said. “We just had to play as hard as we could to make sure we got the bye. There are some people that have never been to Cleveland — they don’t know how good that bye is, having that extra game you don’t have to play.”
Entering the game as the MAC’s top scoring defense, Ball State took advantage of its abilities early on in the first half. The Cardinals jumped to a 24-7 lead through the first 13 minutes, with points coming from five 3-pointers.
The Huskies began to persist on offense as the half concluded, but the Cardinals had the edge through the first 20 minutes with a 36-24 lead at halftime. Ball State ended the first with a 59.1 field goal percentage.
However, Northern Illinois displayed the unpredictability of MAC play early in the second half. Led by MAC-leading scorer Eugene German, the Huskies began the second on a 12-4 run, cutting the Cardinals’ lead to four points.
Despite facing a hungry Northern Illinois squad on its Senior Night, Teague said he had little sense of panic even after the Huskies’ run and knew his team had an advantage.
“Basketball’s a game of runs,” Teague said. “We had ours’ early, and It was [the Huskies’] time to have theirs’. As long as you don’t let it overtake you, you just keep doing what you’ve been doing to take the lead and we did.”
Doing just that, the Cardinals followed up the Huskies’ 12-4 run with an 11-0 run of their own, taking a 51-36 lead approaching the midway point of the second half. The Cardinals began the run with six points off senior forward Kyle Mallers, followed by two layups and a free throw from redshirt freshman guard/forward Kani Acree. After exiting the first half due to injury, Acree finished Friday’s win with eight points — all coming in the second half.
“[The Huskies] crawled all the way back,” Whitford said. “They cut into our lead by four points and we had a lot of pressure. I thought our guys responding right there was really a key moment in the game.”
Anchoring the 11-point run, Mallers said his breakout in the second half was key in sustaining the Cardinals’ momentum. The senior forward finished with 12 points, three of them coming off 3-pointers. He also added six rebounds.
“We just tried to bring energy,” Mallers said. “As our front-court guys, me and Tahjai just tried to lead our defense the best we can and let our offense find various ways to attack. I thought we did a good job with that today.”
The Huskies continued to show signs of life in the rest of the second, but Ball State continued to feed off its energy to take the game and the division title. Throughout the game, the Cardinals limited German to 5-21 on field goal attempts.
“[German’s] a great player,” Whitford said. “He’s not easy to stop. He didn’t have a great shooting night, but we had a lot to do with that.”
The Cardinals will be back in action at next week’s MAC Tournament in Cleveland. Time and opponent are to be determined.
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