As the final buzzer sounded, Ball State Women’s Basketball (20-12, 13-9 MAC) came short in winning their first Mid-American Conference [MAC] Championship since 2009. Instead, Buffalo (25-8, 19-4 MAC) won the championship and punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament with their 79-75 win.
Projected to finish ninth in the preseason poll for MAC women’s basketball, the Cardinals defied expectations this season. Going into the tournament, they were the No. 5 seed and defeated No. 4 seed Northern Illinois (14-15, 11-10 MAC) and No. 1 seed Toledo (26-5, 20-2 MAC) to reach the Championship game.
Along with ranking low to start the season, Ball State lost their leading scorer, redshirt junior Anna Clephane, Jan. 9, and one of their key bench players, junior Estel Puiggros, in its semifinal win over Toledo. Down two contributors, Ball State prevailed this season.
Ball State head coach Brady Sallee said the two injuries the Cardinals had to deal with were tough to deal with, especially knowing how much the season meant to those two. However, he said teams aren’t always fully healthy and have to adjust when need be.
“You’d certainly like to have all the bullets in your gun, as heartbreaking as it is,” Sallee said. “However, you have to be able to figure it out on the fly. I’m awfully proud of how mentally tough these kids were.”
Sallee said he felt a sense of pride in Ball State, something he told the Cardinals as soon as he could.
“I told them after the game how proud I was of them, not just for this week but for who they’ve become,” Sallee said. “I think this team is defined by their buy-in and they want this success. I think they wanted to know what it took.”
Freshman Ally Becki confirmed that notion when she said her biggest takeaway from the season, and the MAC Tournament in particular, was the work it takes to play at a high level in these situations.
“Now that I have a grip on it, I know what goes into it,” Becki said. “I know Thelma (Dis Agustsdottir) and I will be in the gym the next two or three days getting shots up.”
Becki finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. Dis Agustsdottir, a senior, also finished with 20 points.
Becki said Ball State has played together all season and it showed. She said she believes that is a key to their success.
“We play as a team,” Becki said. “I feel like it showed throughout the tournament, even when we were down 15 to NIU, we played as a team and that’s what got us here.”
Dis Agustsdottir said she feels the Cardinals can compete with any team and they do so through their determination.
“We can play with anybody,” Dis Agustsdottir said. “We have the fight, the toughness and the heart.”
Previously in the regular season, the two teams had split, the Bulls winning one and the Cardinals winning the other. In the MAC Championship, the lead changed seven times and was tied twice.
The game was evenly matched and Sallee said while a lot of so-called “mid” conferences don’t get attention for their competition, he believed this game looked like a Power-5 game.
“I think it was what a Championship game should look like,” Sallee said. “It was never out of hand for either team and in this league, that was as good as it gets.”
For Buffalo, 59 of its 79 points came in the form of two players; Junior guard Dyaisha Fair who scored 30 and freshman guard Georgia Woolley who scored 29.
Sallee said he was thankful for the week. He said it gave him a chance to spend time with his family, which he normally doesn’t have a lot of time to do during the season, and credits his team for his experience in Cleveland.
“They gave me something that was priceless,” Sallee said. “On top of the way they played and the type of people these kids are, I feel like even though we lost today, I still won.”
The Cardinals won 20 games this season and made it to the MAC Championship. With that, they have a chance to be selected to the WNIT Tournament and possibly the NCAA Tournament.
Sallee said he feels lucky to coach the Cardinals and is grateful for the effort they brought all season. He said he thinks they have more basketball to play and is hoping for that opportunity.
“As long as I can keep coaching this team, I’m going to want to,” Sallee said. “Whatever tournament it’s in, we’ll be ready to go. I’m looking forward to getting that phone call.”
Becki said the Cardinals have a bright future ahead of them and made an emphatic statement towards that future.
“We’ll be back,” Becki said. “We’re here and we’re going to stay here.”
Contact Kyle Smedley on Twitter @smedley1932 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org