MUNCIE, Ind. -- The Ball State men’s basketball team had been so close in recent weeks. The effort was always there and the execution continued to improve through numerous overtime games and near misses, but the wins just refused to come.
Saturday afternoon, the Cardinals found the breakthrough they were seeking on Senior Day. Ball State never trailed against Mid-American Conference West Division foe Central Michigan and withstood a potential tying shot at the buzzer for a 74-71 victory. The win came, in large part, because of the play of the team’s five seniors.
Jesse Berry led the Cardinals with 20 points; Majok Majok logged his ninth double-double of the season with 14 points and 14 rebounds; Chris Bond scored 10 points and grabbed eight boards; Tyler Koch did a little bit of everything with seven points, six rebounds and four assists; and Kindon Crowder made his first career start and drained a second-half 3-pointer.
“I’m proud of the whole team and I’m really proud of the seniors because they all did a great job,” Ball State head coach James Whitford said. “It was a great win for us.”
Koch has been plagued by injury throughout his career and only recently returned to action from a hip injury. But he said after the game he felt as good today as he has all season. It showed in his performance as he made pin-point passes, set key screens, crashed the boards and wound up on the floor more than once trying to save possessions.
The local product from Winchester, Ind., played a season-high 27 minutes to help the Cardinals (5-22, 2-14 MAC) snap a 10-game losing streak. Only Zavier Turner with seven assists had more than his four for a Ball State team that finished the game with 17 assists on 23 made baskets.
“It’s been a really hard year for Tyler, and he’s been out,” Whitford said. “I can’t believe I played him 27 minutes. He did a great job and really fed Majok. Those guys worked hand in hand. Tyler I thought played a complete game: leadership, performance on the court and organization.”
The Cardinals were able to survive this time against Central Michigan (10-18, 3-13 MAC) after surrendering a late lead and losing to the Chippewas on the road just 11 days ago in triple overtime. They avoided a similar fate this time around but not without a little excitement.
Ball State led 74-68 after a Turner free throw with less than 10 seconds to play, but Central Michigan’s Rayshawn Simmons got free for a 3-pointer with just over 1 second left to bring the Chippewas within three. The Cardinals then threw the in-bounds pass away and CMU leading scorer Chris Fowler managed to fire off a corner 3 at the buzzer, but it came up short and Ball State held on.
“We made two mistakes late,” Whitford said about those final plays. “The good news is we addressed that in the locker room, and for the first time in a long time we get a teachable moment after a win. We haven’t had enough of those.”
Fowler, the third-leading scorer in the MAC, led Central Michigan with 26 points and nine assists, while Braylon Rayson joined him in double figures with 11 points. The Chippewas fell to 2-20 all-time in Worthen Arena.
Ball State will close out the regular season next week with two road trips, starting with a visit to Eastern Michigan for a 7 p.m. tipoff Tuesday in a game that will be televised by the Ball State Sports Network. The conference tournament gets underway March 10.
“I look forward to these games coming up because we’re playing better,” Whitford said. “You look at the scores of our recent games, and we’re right there on so many of them. We just have to keep searching and keep grinding, and if the ball keeps bouncing our way, we’re going to surprise some people.”
“We’ve been building all year to start playing some good basketball, and we’re starting to bring it together,” Koch said. “It’s definitely a good feeling.”