MUNCIE, Ind. -- It took until the final seconds Wednesday for two-time defending Mid-American Conference champion Akron to secure a league-opening, 72-68 win over Ball State.
The Cardinals started slow on their home floor at Worthen Arena but clawed backed from double digits twice to threaten the Zips, including once in the final minute of the game.
Ball State rallied from 10 points down with 2:20 to play and cut the lead to three on a Chris Bond 3-pointer with four seconds left. But the Cardinals were forced to foul, and Akron’s Nick Harney made one of two free throws to seal the win.
Akron improved to 9-5 with the victory and got off to a 1-0 MAC start. Ball State fell to 3-9 on the year and 0-1 to begin league play.
“I was pleased with our competitiveness and being able to dig out of a hole and put ourselves in position; we were right there to win the game,” Ball State head coach James Whitford said. “After we got dug into a hole, we started to make some great hustle plays and attack the rim, and we really held our own on the glass.”
Bond led the Cardinals with 18 points, while Majok Majok notched his third straight double-double and sixth of the year with 16 points and 13 rebounds. Jesse Berry scored 12 points and Mark Alstork added 10 for Ball State.
Akron’s Quincy Diggs led all players with 21 points, while Demetrius Treadwell scored 13. Both players were preseason all-conference selections.
Ball State won the rebounding battle, 42-35, limited Akron to just 3-for-23 shooting from 3-point range and made more free throws (26) than the Zips attempted (24). Yet Akron was able for most of the game to hold on to the early lead it built.
“Akron has kind of set the standard for how hard you play in this league, and we wanted to make sure in our first conference game, getting to play them, that we answered that,” Whitford said. “We out-rebounded them by seven and our half-court defense was terrific. We were a few plays away on offense from being able to win the game.”
The Cardinals made just one of their first 10 shots and turned the ball over five times in the first 10 minutes to find themselves trailing by double digits.
Akron stretched its lead to as many as 15 points at 27-12 before Ball State rallied over the last six-plus minutes of the first half. The Cardinals closed the half on a 16-7 run, with Berry and Bond combining to score 13 of those points, and trailed 34-28 at the break.
After falling behind by double digits again early in the second half, Ball State went on a 12-0 run to take its only lead of the game at 47-45 with 11 minutes left. The Cardinals scored eight points at the free throw line during that stretch as they pounded the ball into the paint.
But just after Ball State grabbed the lead, Akron’s Jake Kretzer answered with a runner on the other end. Deji Ibitayo followed with a 3-pointer from the corner and the Zips eventually stretched their lead back to 10 points before Ball State’s late rally.
Majok, who entered the game 11th in the nation in rebounding, now has 45 boards over the past three games. He is averaging a double-double for the season. Bond added seven rebounds on the night. He was consistently able to get to three free throw line, where he connected on nine of his 10 attempts.
Ball State now heads out on the road for two more games against some of the league’s perennial contenders in Kent State and Ohio. The Cardinals will visit Kent State for a 7 p.m. tipoff Saturday.