"It's 0-0 going into Cleveland."
Senior guard Ishmael El-Amin spent no time dwelling on Ball State's (10-12, 8-9 MAC) 89-70 loss to Toledo (20-7, 15-4) Friday night, as the Rockets halted the Cardinals' three-game win streak in the regular season finale. The game was the Cardinals' first on the road in more than a month — and the last before the Mid-American Conference Tournament March 11-13, where the No. 8 Cardinals will once again face the No. 1 Rockets in quarterfinal action.
Head coach James Whitford said the loss wasn't necessarily due to a lack of focus or attitude but the Rockets simply outplaying the Cardinals for a full 40 minutes. Toledo senior guard Marreon Jackson anchored the home side, recording a triple-double with 22 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists.
"I didn't think we played particularly well," Whitford said. "We certainly didn't take away enough from Toledo -- they played a really good game. Marreon Jackson [and] Spencer Littleson are great players, and they were loaded tonight."
Ball State shot 28 of 70 on field-goal attempts, and El-Amin led the Cardinals offensively with 22 points — his 11th straight game reaching double figures. Toledo took a 38-34 lead at halftime before the Rockets went on a 30-16 run ending the game. Whitford said the Rockets quickly took advantage of their offensive toughness at the right moment, and it contributed to the loss.
"You want to make them shoot tough shots," Whitford said, "know they're going to make some and just live with the consequences of it. That's what Toledo did to us tonight quite successfully, and I thought some of the threes they took, we defended well, but in the second half, they had a run where they got off in transition too much. That was the disappointing part for us."
Ball State held multiple leads throughout the first half before redshirt junior forward Miryne Thomas received a technical foul for unsportsmanlike conduct. All of the Cardinals' first-half points came from just four players: El-Amin, redshirt fifth-year guard K.J. Walton, redshirt senior forward Brachen Hazen and redshirt sophomore guard Jarron Coleman.
Not only did the Rockets effectively find transition in the second half, Whitford said, but turnovers also costed the Cardinals throughout the game. Ball State recorded 13, giving way to 17 Toledo points.
"[Toledo] hit some shots," El-Amin said. "Granted, we gave them some — a couple too many, of course — but I think we're in a good place. Guys are not too low after this loss...You only need to win three games to get into the NCAA Tournament, so I think that's where the guys heads are at."
Despite the loss, El-Amin said he feels comfortable heading into the MAC Tournament. Even after COVID-19 canceled last year's event, he has the confidence of his teammates and believes the Cardinals are capable of playing better basketball in high-leverage situations.
"It's going to be high-grade basketball," El-Amin said. "That's what you want, and I think my teammates have the same feelings I do — excited, ready to get into Cleveland and just able to compete."
Whitford took a more cautious approach, as opposed to his player. He said he believes there are five or six teams in the conference good enough to win the whole tournament — and the Cardinals are one of them — but understands they'll have to string three straight wins to do so.
"Hopefully, we're not that comfortable," Whitford said. "I think we have confidence — we know we didn't play well [Friday] — but there should be a sense of urgency for everybody right now. You have everything on the line Thursday, Friday [and] Saturday."
Contact Connor Smith with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cnsmith_19.