CLEVELAND –– Ball State Women’s Basketball family members, new university director of athletics Jeff Mitchell, Ball State donors, the Ball State Code Red dance team, Ball State cheerleaders, and more, met across the street from Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse for a “Pregame Party” around 10:30 a.m.
Though it was a snowy morning, the main section of Harry Buffalo, the sports bar in which the event was held, saw Red and White from wall to wall. Mitchell, head coach Brady Sallee’s wife Mandy, and associate head coach Audrey Spencer’s husband Paul, each commented on the support the Cardinals have received throughout the course of the season.
Paul said it means a lot to the Spencer family, in particular, to see the support Ball State received in Cleveland. He, along with Mitchell and Mandy, said it’s a credit to the successful season Ball State had before the MAC Tournament.
“They deserve this and more. I’m proud of them,” Paul said. “I'm proud of all the coaches, I'm really proud of Brady…I couldn't be more proud of my wife. It takes a lot and she doesn't miss anything with the kids. She puts in the hard work, they deserve it, and the girls deserve everything with everything they put into it.”
Mitchell, who accepted the position as director of athletics Feb. 3, said he has picked up on how much a MAC Championship would mean to the players and coaching staff in his short time interacting with them.
“It would reinforce the idea that Ball State is a basketball institution,” Mitchell said. “We want to be comprehensively excellent in all that we do, but basketball is important in the state of Indiana. So I think it would be a statement.”
Mandy has been with Brady throughout his entire 11-year tenure at Ball State. She confirmed Mitchell’s beliefs about what a MAC Championship would mean to her husband and the Cardinals as a whole.
“It's everything to him,” Mandy said. “To us it's crazy because he's worked so hard, and every year something always happens and we just can't quite get there. As hard as he works and as much time and effort as he puts into this, we would love for this to happen for him and his girls that he absolutely loves. He loves this team, I think, as much as he's loved any team that he's ever had.”
Paul said he and his wife have been together since Audrey was playing at Ball State from 2006-10. He was with her when the Cardinals won the MAC Championship in 2009, and said while she looks back on that time fondly, she wanted the current team to experience that just as much.
“She wants these girls to feel exactly what she felt,” Paul said. “She can talk about it all she wants, but she lights up when she talks about them. She wants to give these girls the opportunity and everything more than she ever had.”
Ball State was one win away from advancing to the MAC Championship game, the spot it has wanted to return to since losing to Buffalo in that same contest in 2022. Excitement surrounding the No. 3 seed Cardinals’ Mid-American Conference (MAC) Tournament semifinal matchup against No. 2 seed Bowling Green was high, to say the least.
The Cardinals began the game on par with expectations, leading 27-18 and riding an 11-0 run with 6:02 left in the second quarter. Senior guard Elissa Brett, member of the All-MAC First Team and All-MAC Defensive Team, had two fouls for the Falcons, and Ball State seemed to be in the driver’s seat.
Robyn Fralick, Bowling Green head coach, said the timeout called at that point in the game was all about fixing the Falcons’ mindset.
“We turned it over a lot early, and we settled down from that,” Fralick said. “We had a lot of fouls early, but I think from that timeout we just kind of settled into the game.”
The tide seemed to change from there, as Bowling Green tied the game with 1:13 left in the first half. By halftime, Ball State’s lead was cut to three at 34-31.
Sophomores Marie Kiefer and Madelyn Bischoff, both starters for Ball State, each had two fouls, and the Falcons seemed more confident. Although Brett picked up her fourth foul with 8:06 left in the third quarter, Bowling Green outscored Ball State 19-10 and led 50-44 with one quarter of regulation to go.
10 lead changes and five ties later, the Cardinals came up short, falling 70-61 to the Falcons. In the fourth, each team shot 50 percent from the field, yet Bowling Green outscored Ball State 20-17.
“I just felt like we couldn't get stops, and or even rebounds when we did, so [it was] definitely frustrating,” graduate student Thelma Dis Agustsdottir said.
Brady said the Cardinals’ 11-25 free throw shooting was one of the biggest contributors to their defeat in the Cardinals and Falcons’ previous meeting just nine days ago. In this MAC Tournament semifinal, Ball State once again struggled from the line, shooting 7-14.
“We know we’re better than that, so we just have to step up and make those,” Dis Agustsdottir, who finished with 10 points, said.
Bischoff and Kiefer, along with Brett, fouled out late in the 4th quarter, and them being in foul trouble throughout most of the second half led to a different pace of play than normal for Ball State. Throughout the season, the Cardinals have stressed they are at their best when they’re playing the game their way, however, Brady said he didn’t feel tempo was an excuse as to why Ball State fell short.
“We didn't get it up and down [the court] and score in the 80s and do all that kind of stuff, but I don't think pace of play was the story of the game,” he said. “I think the story of the game was Bowling Green’s toughness, and for me to say anything other than that would take away the credit [from] where it should be.”
Brett finished with 16 points in 16 minutes, and three other Falcons advanced to the MAC Championship scoring in double figures. Additionally, Bowling Green out-rebounded Ball State 39-31, and 13-7 on the offensive side.
Graduate student and All-MAC First Team member Anna Clephane finished her final MAC game with 20 points, sophomore and All-MAC Second Team member Ally Becki finished with 11 and Ball State forced four more turnovers than its opponent. Brady made sure to mention the Cardinals didn’t lose because of a lack of effort.
Instead, the head coach fell on his sword.
“I love the team I'm coaching, and I hate that I couldn't have been better for them today and gotten them into this championship game,” Sallee said.
The post-game press conference was nothing short of emotional. Sallee expressed frustration after failing to advance to the same game the Cardinals participated in last season. Dis Agustsdottir, who called her five seasons at Ball State “a great journey”, and Becki each shed tears.
Though Becki struggled to put together a tribute to Clephane and Dis Agustsdottir through a shaky voice, she thanked the two leaders for what she has learned from them throughout her two seasons alongside them.
“They mean a lot to the program. Just to see them come out everyday and give their full effort is a lot,” Becki said. “Anna coming back from her injuries and Thelma dealing with all this sh–– she’s been through… It's hard and I know we wanted to go out there and win it for them.”
However, Brady stressed the season is not over yet. Although the Cardinals fell short of their aspirations of bringing a MAC Championship to the program for the first time in 14 years, he is confident Ball State will receive a Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) bid.
After a 25-8 season and a 14-4 conference record, it’s hard to see a scenario where that doesn’t happen. Brady said while the loss stings, the Cardinals will try to use it to propel them towards a successful postseason run.
“That's always one of the toughest things when you know you got a team good enough. I don't think you can ever be spoiled,” Sallee said. “...You got to have the want to, to go in the WNIT and win a few games. We'll certainly work on that over the next few days.”
A MAC Championship, however, will have to wait another year.