In front of a limited number of fans and with the sounds of the Cardinal Pride Basketball Band echoing throughout Worthen Arena, momentum was on Ball State's side early on against Buffalo. The team took a seven-point lead just under nine minutes into the game, but the Bulls began applying pressure as the first half progressed, taking a 33-32 lead into their locker room at halftime.
Shooting just 25 percent in the second half and forcing 10 turnovers, Buffalo took advantage of Ball State's mistakes throughout the game, and the Cardinals lost their fourth straight 78-58.
However, Whitford said he felt the score of Tuesday's game was closer than it indicated. Without its leading scorer in redshirt fifth year guard K.J. Walton — who remains out due to COVID-19 protocols — Whitford knows Ball State remains a long way from reaching its absolute potential. But it didn't stop him from reflecting on the positives that came out of the loss.
"Buffalo is a good team," Whitford said. "I actually thought we did a lot of good things...I thought we had a tough shooting night, and that was certainly part of the story. But, I thought we really worked together and got a lot of good shots."
For Whitford, this optimism began with improved cohesion and chemistry between his players. He pointed to a few avoidable miscues — including a moment when redshirt junior forward Miryne Thomas held onto the ball too long and struggled to match the game's flow, leading to a Bulls' steal. However, he noticed gradual improvements compared to the team's 74-42 loss to Akron Jan. 30.
"Our body language wasn't very good in the Akron game," Whitford said. "You could sense our players were more committed, and I thought we were a more cohesive group in that regard tonight. The other part of chemistry is the timing and the rhythm on the court...Our on the court chemistry was a lot better tonight than it was against Akron, yet it's not where we want it to be"
Like his coach, senior guard Ishmael El-Amin, who led Ball State with 22 points, felt a strong sense of connection in Tuesday's game. Despite the team missing its leading scorer in Walton, redshirt senior guard/forward Reggie Jones and sophomore guard Jalen Windham, El-Amin said the game was a testament to how much he and his teammates have grown over an unconventional season.
"That togetherness that we've talked about all year, [and] we've seen that we've been missing it," El-Amin said. "We were able to bring that to one another, stay positive in each other and we know at the end of the day — at the end of the long run — that things are going to play out in our way."
Despite losing four straight games, El-Amin said, he hasn't reflected much on Ball State's recent adversity. Instead, he is using this period to continue improving himself as a player and prepare for whenever he needs to step up.
"The next man needs to be ready to step up," El-Amin said. "You never know when your time is going to come. Every day that you get a chance to get in the gym, you don't take it for granted. You get better each day, so when your time comes, there's no guessing. You're confident in your game, and you're confident in your teammates."
Another positive Whitford noticed from the team's loss was the performance of redshirt sophomore guard Jarron Coleman. In his fifth game back from injury, Coleman put down 11 points and eight rebounds in 30 minutes of action. While Whitford said he has a long way to go in achieving his full capabilities, he emphasized how valuable his recent journey has been as he continues growing throughout his Cardinal career.
"When Boogie's clicking on all cylinders, he's a really, really good player," Whitford said. "He just needs this experience — each one of these games is so valuable for him. He's moving in the right direction, and I'm excited for him to have another two to three more weeks because I think he'll continue to see more progress."
Ball State has eight games remaining on its schedule before the Mid-American Conference Tournament in Cleveland, with five of them at Worthen Arena. Whitford said he hopes to take advantage of the Cardinals' home comforts down the stretch, both from a mental and emotional standpoint.
"Honestly, it's just nice to sleep in your own bed for a while," Whitford said. "It helps when tomorrow's an off day, and you're not getting home at 2 or 3 a.m. and going to class at 8. [Our players] actually get a normal night, and it just kind of helps your recovery and your next practice when you're not on the road all the time."
The Cardinals will look to feed off these positives in their next game, Feb. 6 against Toledo at Worthen Arena.
Contact Connor Smith with comments at email@example.com or on Twitter @cnsmith_19.