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Controlling what they can control: Ball State women’s basketball sprints past Buffalo

By Caleb Suver, The Daily News | Published on in The Daily News
Junior Nyla Hampton steals the ball against Eastern Michigan March 1 at Worthen Arena. The Cardinals were up 30-20 at half-time. Kate Tilbury, DN

Coming into Saturday’s game, the Ball State Cardinals (27-4, 16-2 MAC) still had a chance of earning the No. 1 seed in next week’s Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament.

Ball State needed a win and a Toledo Rockets loss to Kent State for the Cardinals to be crowned Co-MAC champions. With the other game tipping off at the same time as their own, the only outcome the Cardinals could control was their play and effort level against the Buffalo Bulls (17-12, 10-8 MAC). In a game that saw Ball State lead from start to finish, the Cardinals cruised to a 71-50 road win at Buffalo, giving them a program-record 27th win.

“You can’t always control shots. But you can always give a great effort,” head coach Brady Sallee said. “I think our kids understand how to do that within a game plan.”

“I just thought our kids were ready to go and played like you want them to play in March.”

Looking back on conference play, Ball State has won games that were defensive battles, offensive shootouts and close late. The last time the Bulls and the Cardinals met, Ball State had to overcome an 18-point first quarter deficit to win. Saturday, Ball State put the game out of reach early and never let Buffalo get back in the game.

Junior Ally Becki made a pull-up jumpshot on the game’s first possession. On the ensuing inbound, she stole the ball and found junior Alex Richard for a layup. The quick start led to a 39-15 halftime lead for Ball State.

The lead stretched to as much as 31 in the third quarter, but the lead shrunk down to as little as 16 early in the fourth quarter. Sallee said his team has learned to be “comfortable” in those moments, allowing them to pull away in the fourth

“​​I think that’s the maturity of this team. We got a lot of relevant experience on the floor,” Sallee said.

Despite holding a 27-point lead with 3:54 left in the third quarter, Ball State’s effort did not stop. Almost immediately after the Cardinals committed a turnover on offense, junior Nyla Hampton tipped the ball away from a Buffalo player trying to dribble up the court. The ball rolled on the floor, and Hampton was the first to the floor, diving on the ball and eventually getting a timeout from Sallee to retain possession.

“We talk a lot about playing the standards, and part of that is giving your max effort. It doesn’t matter if you’re up 20 [or] down 20. It doesn’t matter if it’s first quarter fourth quarter [or] overtime,” Hampton said. “At any point in time, give all that you can.”

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Junior Alex Richard looks up to shoot the ball against Akron Feb. 28 at Worthen Arena. Richard scored 21 points in the game. Kate Tilbury, DN

Hampton also drew the responsibility of guarding a MAC Player of the Year candidate in fifth-year Chellia Watson. Hampton, the two-time reigning MAC Defensive Player of the Year, got the better of the battle. Down from her average of 23 points per game, Watson had 16 points on 8-for-18 (44 percent) shooting. At the half, Watson had just four points.

“I know that she’s going to be trying to hunt her own shots. My job is to make those shots as difficult as they can [be],” Hampton said.

Junior Alex Richard had 18 points on 53 percent shooting in the win, her sixth straight game in double-figure scoring. Junior Marie Kiefer and Hampton accompanied Richard in the scoring department as they also reached double-digits.

“The fact that everybody can contribute, and we have so many different layers to our team. It’s just really important. It’s really special,” Richard said.

Another sign that Ball State played connected basketball comes from their assist numbers. The Cardinals had 24 assists on 27 made field goals Saturday afternoon. Both Hampton and Sallee said they were pleased with the way the team shared the ball.

“We’re just kind of at a point where we’re playing off each other, putting together a really good team basketball,” Hampton said.

Saturday’s game marked the end of the regular season for Ball State. It also ended a week that saw them pick up road wins against two of the top four teams in the MAC. Sallee said his team’s confidence is where it needs to be heading into the conference tournament.

With Toledo winning their game against Kent State, the Cardinals will be the No. 2 seed in the MAC tournament. As for the program record of 27 regular season wins, Sallee said he’s proud of the record but knows that there is one goal that truly matters above all.

“The goal is waiting for us up in Cleveland. That’s what we’ve been talking about for a long time this year. That’s where our kids want to get to,” Sallee said.

Ball State begins MAC tournament play Wednesday in Cleveland, Ohio at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse. Their matchup with the Ohio Bobcats is the third game on the first-round schedule, with tip-off taking place after the conclusion of the first two games.

Contact Caleb Zuver via email at cmzuver@bsu.edu or on X @zuves35.