Head coach Brady Sallee stomped back and forth in front of Ball State Women’s Basketball’s bench with a scowl on his face most of the first half of their contest against Butler.
This was a game he previously spoke about becoming a rivalry, and in the first half, the Cardinals couldn’t seem to grab the upper hand against the Bulldogs. Elijah Poe, a Ball State Daily News reporter, leaned over at the courtside press table at Worthen Arena and said, ‘Mirror image.’
There was no other way to describe the first half of basketball Thursday night. Heading into halftime, the Bulldogs led the Cardinals 33-32 with almost identical team stats.
Though his facial expressions and reactions to many of the officials' calls and the Cardinals’ mistakes told a different story, Sallee didn't burst into the locker room at halftime and make a scene. Instead, he talked about three things: adjustments to their press defense, rebounding (which they trailed 15-14 to Butler at the time) and taking care of the ball (the Cardinals had nine turnovers at the half).
“Halftime wasn’t necessarily even a challenge, it was just some X's and O's, let's do this, let's change this, and we know we got to be tougher in the second half or this is gonna go down to the wire,” Sallee said. “I went into our halftime not thinking, ‘Let's get this down to the wire and try to win it,’ I went in like, ‘Let's take care of business and let's win this with the better team.’”
From the time Ball State and Butler re-emerged from their tunnels to start the third quarter until the final buzzer sounded, it was a completely different game as the Cardinals outscored the Bulldogs 52-35 in the second half and defeated their in-state opponent 84-68. Instead of stomping and scowling, Sallee pumped his fist as the Cardinals’ made the adjustments he was looking for.
For Sallee, defense was a focal point for the Cardinals heading into the season, as “five points better” is their mantra after losing to Buffalo in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) Championship Tournament championship game 79-75. Through the first three games of the season, Ball State has forced 66 turnovers and has allowed a high of 68 points.
Sophomore Madelyn Bischoff, who had 12 points, earned a spot in the starting lineup to start the season after coming in off the bench during the 2021-22 season. Not only Sallee, but sophomore Ally Becki, spoke highly of her ability, particularly defensively and in her scrappy approach to the game.
“It feels like we [all] have our own talents and whatever he tells us, we can do it,” Bischoff said. “Like [Sallee] said, I don't find it as a challenge. We all have it in us and if we just want to do it, we'll do it.”
Becki, who led the Cardinals with 18 points and five rebounds, similarly made the “hustle plays” Bischoff did. Seemingly every time there was a rebound to be had or a loose ball to be dove upon, Becki was there.
“I think every time before you start a game, you have to start the right way and being able to be the first person on the first loose ball, I feel like that sets the tone for the game and that just makes other players around you think, ‘Oh, this is what we're doing right now, we have to keep doing it the whole game,’” Becki said.
Sallee talked about the importance of this approach to the game and why he expects it out of the Cardinals.
“When you're playing at home, you got to take pride in that, you got to take pride in that building you're playing in and the people that support you and the way you do that is those hustle plays,” Sallee said. “You show ‘em what it means to you with how hard you play. We did talk about it before, we had to win 50/50 balls, we had to win hustle plays, we were not going to let another team come into our building and play harder than we were under any circumstance.”
The 10th year head coach gave an impassioned speech about Ball State’s dedication and work ethic, mentioning the Cardinals lift at 6 a.m. routinely, even after games. He said they “play their tails off” and he has to not only respect that by giving the players rest, but also encourage that with the practice routine he gives.
“If I came out [tomorrow and] said, ‘We're gonna go for two hours,’ they’d do it right now. They might wait for me in the alley, but they’d do it,” Sallee said. “...Not a whole lot of teams, not a whole lot of programs, not a whole lot of players would do what we're going to do at 6 a.m. let’s just face it, but it's also why this program isn't for everybody. We tell them that in recruiting, ‘This doesn't have to be for you, it's just got to be the right thing for the 12 that we go play with.’ So these kids will get up in the morning and that alarm will go off and they'll probably have a few names for me, but they'll go do their work.”
Ball State (2-1) returns to action Sunday when they take on No. 9 Notre Dame (3-0) in South Bend, Ind. at Purcell Pavilion. Not only is this an in-state matchup, but the Fighting Irish are consistently one of the better teams in all of NCAA Women’s College Basketball.
“It’s not a team we can just go around and dilly dally with,” Becki said. “I mean, they’re Notre Dame.”