As is a postgame standard at Worthen Arena, a head coach and two players sit behind a folding table with a black placemat over it, four Aquafina water bottles placed in front of them and a Ball State University Athletics banner behind them during the Cardinals’ press conference.
However, on this day, on Senior Day, the press conference felt more like a conversation between three family members. Napkins were used as tissues while Anna Clephane, Thelma Dis Agustsdottir and Brady Sallee struggled to put together responses through tears.
“Over the last five years, this team has become my family and Thelma has become a sister to me,” Clephane said. “I can't even imagine playing on a different team in a different place. Ball State has been a home to me, [and] I’m going to miss playing here for sure.”
Toledo V. Ball State was not only a game with first place in the Mid-American Conference (MAC) on the line, but it was the final home game of the season for the Cardinals. Dis Agustsdottir, a graduate student, and Clephane, a redshirt senior, are both in their final year with Ball State Women’s Basketball and two were honored at halfcourt prior to tip-off, joined by their families.
The two came into the program together in 2018 and have grown to become best friends. Jeanne, Anna’s mother, said Anna has helped Dis Agustsdottir “get out of her shell” and Dis Agustsdottir has helped Anna through tough times, such as her recovery from two ACL tears.
“It's just been great. [Dis Agustsdottir] knows our whole family and they're all really comfortable with her,” Jeanne said. “It's just been a great relationship, [and] I think it's gonna be a lifelong friendship for them.”
Dis Agustsdottir backed up Anna’s and Jeanne’s words, barely making it through her ‘Thank you’ to Ball State without being overcome by emotion.
“I've had such a good time being here,” she said. “I came in five years ago, barely spoke a word to anyone. [I’ll remember] all the people I met [and] all the relationships that I’ll have forever.”
Over time, Dis Agustsdottir has spent holidays with the Clephane family, as during COVID-19 she faced restrictions preventing her from visiting her family in Iceland. Bjorg Dis Hafsteinsdottir, Thelma’s mother, said Jeanne and Dave have been like second parents for Thelma.
“I think they're both very lucky to have met each other and [have] grown this friendship in such a great way,” Bjorg said. “It's gonna be a lifelong friendship. So it's just amazing, but I have to say, we can never thank Anna's parents [enough] for what they've done for Thelma.”
Bjorg and Thelma’s father Agust traveled from their home of Keflavik, Iceland, to support their daughter on Senior Day. This is not Bjorg and Agust’s first time in Muncie, Indiana, as although they’ve had to work around COVID-19 restrictions, they try to visit Ball State once or twice a year.
Thelma has been involved in basketball her entire life, as Bjorg is a former player as well. Bjorg said their family went to watch games in Keflavik, Iceland, and she remembers taking Thelma to her own practices and games since she was four years old.
Bjorg said she feels it’s going to be hard for Thelma to leave Muncie in May.
“What we see is a totally different person in a good way,” Bjorg said. “She came here as a young girl, very shy, and it's been amazing seeing her grow up to a mature woman. We are very proud of her [for] what she's been doing here…indescribable.”
Bjorg said Thelma and Anna haven’t let their families talk about how this is the last year they’re playing basketball together, as they don’t want to think about that until it’s staring them in the face. While Thelma knew heading into the offseason 2022-23 would be her last season, Anna wasn’t so sure.
After suffering her second ACL tear in January 2022, she didn’t know if she would ever play basketball again. After Anna rehabbed her injury back to 100 percent and getting cleared to play again, Jeanne felt Senior Day carried even more weight because of the journey her daughter has been on.
“It's so heavy because we didn't know that she was gonna be back at all after that second injury,” Jeanne said. “I think she's really happy that she did. She's had a great year, [and] I've never seen her so happy on the court…I’m just so proud of her because she's had to go through so much mentally and physically to get here.”
Anna was emotional during the pregame ceremony, during the game itself and during the postgame press conference. She said that comes down to how the Cardinals feel like family to her.
“I've never been on a team where I can genuinely say I would put myself on the line for any one of my teammates, [or] any one of my coaches,” Anna said. “I think that's really special and that's what makes it so emotional for me is the love that surrounds me and the love I've gotten from this place.”
Multiple times throughout the press conference, the 11th-year head coach, sitting in the middle of two best friends, put his hand on their shoulders to let them know showing their emotions was OK.
“I love them,” Sallee said. “They've made me a better coach. The loyalty that they've had to this program and the name across their jersey, I can only hope that we've given back to them what they've put into this… they’re just the best.”
He said although they were all crying, he feels after a few days or hours, Anna and Thelma will be able to appreciate this day for the rest of their lives.
“This was a special, special day,” Sallee said. “And yeah, we would’ve liked the score to have been flipped and we'd have liked the free throw numbers to have been flipped but it doesn't change what we just experienced the last couple of hours.”
After all, there was a game that preceded the emotional press conference, which saw Toledo (23-4, 14-2 MAC) defeat Ball State (23-6, 13-3 MAC) 72-70. Despite the pomp and circumstance of Senior Day and despite the 2,150 fans in attendance, the Rockets took first place in the MAC from the Cardinals in a contest that came down to free throws.
The Cardinals led out of the first quarter, though trouble began to set in during the second. Boos rained down on the Rockets and the game officials in Worthen as Clephane received a personal and technical foul arguing a no-call on a Ball State layup late in the second quarter.
“That's what passion looks like. And it's fun when you're passionate about something and you can tell that all of us are,” Clephane said. “When we get a student section going like that, standing up and cheering and all those people, you could feel the energy from the crowd and that's really, really fun, win or lose.”
Going into halftime, Thelma, Anna, sophomore Ally Becki and sophomore Marie Kiefer each had three fouls, restricting Ball State from playing at full strength for much of the second half. Frustration from the second quarter seemed to be sticking with the Cardinals coming out of the half, as they found themselves down 13 points going into the final quarter.
Ball State trailed by double digits for the entire second half until the 6:07 mark in the fourth quarter. Thelma scored her first points of the game at the 6:40 mark in the fourth quarter, a 3-pointer, and drilled one more to give her six points on the day.
In the fourth, the Cardinals outscored the Rockets 23-12, but it proved to be too little too late as Toledo senior guard Sophia Wiard’s feisty play saw her come up with a clutch steal and subsequent free throws. Wiard finished with 18 points.
After a 3-pointer from Clephane gave her nine points and cut Toledo’s lead to two, Ball State got the ball back with .4 seconds to potentially send the game to overtime or win it. However, Kiefer couldn’t get her shot off in time as Toledo triumphed.
45 total fouls later, Sallee said he felt like everyone from the fans to the players to the coaches wanted to see “a game of this magnitude come down to the players.” Becki led the Cardinals with 18 points, while senior guard/forward Quinesha Lockett led all scorers with 20.
Though the Cardinals weren’t able to secure a perfect home record on the season, as they finished 14-1, Sallee said his perspective on the rest of the season remains unchanged regardless.
“There's a lot of basketball left, and if we’d have won [today], we still had to go win Wednesday, and we still had to go win next Saturday,” Sallee said. “So it doesn't change the mission, it doesn't change what we got to do.”
After the loss, the Cardinals fell to third in the MAC, with Bowling Green (24-4, 11-3 MAC) taking second place. Ball State returns to action Mar. 1 against the Falcons at 5 p.m. on ESPNU.