“It’s March, man,” Ball State head coach Brady Sallee said.
After trailing by 17 points, No. 5 seed Ball State Women’s Basketball (20-11, 12-8 MAC) ended No. 4 seed Northern Illinois' (14-15, 11-10 MAC) season with a 60-54 win.
Behind their defense, depth and 3-point shooting, the Cardinals clawed back and outscored the Huskies 36-20 in the second half. Sallee said Ball State found its success by sticking to its identity.
“That’s who we are,” Sallee said. “We’re a team in every sense of the word. We don’t talk about who gets shots, we talk more about the kind of shots we get.”
Sallee said when Ball State trailed by double-digits, the players never showed signs of giving up and credited the Cardinals' resilience.
“To my team’s credit, we never wavered,” Sallee said. “They were just attentive and wide-eyed. I think it shows you what’s inside these kids.”
In her first MAC Tournament appearance, freshman Ally Becki led the Cardinals with 15 points. Becki said she felt honored to be trusted during crucial moments in the second half and said Ball State's victory was because everyone played their role.
“It’s cool to know the team believes in me to be able to step up and take on tough situations,” Becki said. “We’ve been in this situation before, so we were able to pull ourselves out of it because of people stepping up, scoring and getting rebounds. It was an all-around team win.”
Junior Estel Puiggros scored 12 points off the bench while senior Thelma Dis Agustsdottir and junior Syndey Freeman each added 10 points. Becki said the Cardinals' depth and mindset of staying prepared helped them achieve victory.
“People are ready to step up when their number is called,” Becki said. “Especially if it’s tournament time, you have to be ready and I think we have people that can do that.”
Ball State outscored the Huskies 14-2 in bench points and Sallee said Puiggros and junior Annie Rauch were pivotal in the Cardinals' second-unit success.
“Estel was so big,” Sallee said. “When we put her out there, they had to put their worst defender on somebody who could score. The way Annie played for us, she was Sixth Woman of the Year. She was up against the best post player in our league in [junior forward] A’Jah [Davis] and I thought she did a whale of a job.”
Davis paced Northern Illinois with 17 points and 11 rebounds. Sophomore guard Jayden Marable chipped in 14 points while redshirt senior guard Janae Poisson finished with 13 points.
Sallee said in addition to its performance on the floor, Ball State's bench was important in providing energy and moral support.
“I thought a big part of this game was our bench,” Sallee said. “Not just the ones who were coming in the game but the hype. They were in our players' ears just urging them on and supporting them, it was a true team effort.”
Ball State advances to the semifinals against No. 1 seed Toledo (26-4, 19-1 MAC) March 11 in Cleveland, Ohio. Tipoff is 10 a.m. The Cardinals lost both matchups against the Rockets in the regular season, but Sallee said Ball State is confident.
“There’s a very high level of belief of who we are in our locker room,” Sallee said. “I think the biggest stat in the game is going to be rebounding. We’re going to have to rebound to put ourselves in [a] position to win.”
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @smedley193.