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Keys for the Cardinals in the women’s MAC tournament

By Caleb Zuver, The Daily News | Published on in The Daily News
Junior Alex Richard shoots the ball for two-points against James Madison Feb. 11 at Worthen Arena. Richard scored 11 points. Isaiah Wallace, DN

The Mid-American Conference (MAC) tournament marks the final step for eight teams’ hopes and dreams of making the NCAA tournament. The record-breaking season Ball State women’s basketball (27-4, 16-2 MAC) has had up to this point has been the prelude to what their ultimate goal is: capturing a MAC championship and NCAA tournament berth.

Here are four keys if Ball State wants to punch its ticket to the big dance for the first time since 2009.


On average, the Cardinals are getting outrebounded by opponents on the season by 1.2 rebounds per game. To be fair, a lot of Ball State’s defensive possessions end up in a forced turnover, eliminating the chance for a shot to be taken by the opponent. But there is no denying the role it has played in the four losses the Cardinals have to their name.

In games where they get outrebounded by double digits or more, they are 1-4. If they drop a game in Cleveland, rebounding could very well be the reason why.

A positive trend has been junior Alex Richard has been making her presence felt. Over the last six games, Richard is averaging 17 points per game on 62 percent shooting. She’s also averaging 5.5 rebounds per game over that stretch.

Junior Marie Kiefer and senior Annie Rauch have had their fair share of moments throughout the course of the season as well.

If Kiefer can stay out of foul trouble and continue to be an effective rim protector, it adds a different dimension to the Ball State defense. She’s reached four fouls in 10 games this year but hasn’t done so in the last eight contests.

3-point slump

Ball State suffered its first conference loss against the Northern Illinois Huskies (15-15, 8-10 MAC) on Feb. 7. The game was a night where they just missed some easy layups and wide-open threes. An anomaly if you will.

If you look at the 3-point numbers for the Cardinals since the Huskie loss, it’s an area they will need to improve upon late in the season. In the last eight games, they are shooting just 27 percent from distance on around 22 attempts per game. For the season, their average is 33 percent.

Junior Madelyn Bischoff had a hot start to the season. Through her first nine games, she was 31-for-60 (52 percent) from 3-point land. In the stretch to end the season, she’s struggled. She’s shooting just 25 percent from three in the last eight games.

Bischoff is definitely capable of coming back online. Her percentage for the season still sits at an impressive 40 percent clip. If she can’t turn it back on, Ball State might look to junior Ally Becki to provide the spark from deep. She’s hit 12 threes in her last four games.

Elsewhere, sophomore Hana Mühl has only shot 32 threes off the bench but is making them at an almost 44 percent clip. Sophomore Ana Barretto and senior Estel Puiggros are making their 3-point attempts at a percentage just shy of 40 for the season. Whoever can step up, elite shot-making can cover up crucial mistakes in games of this magnitude.

The potential path

Ball State begins the MAC tournament Wednesday against the Ohio Bobcats (11-20, 8-10 MAC). When the Bobcats came to Worthen Arena Feb. 3, the Cardinals blew them out 97-66. When Ball State traveled to Athens, it was a much different story.

Ball State fell down by as much as 17 points in the first half. The Cardinals came back by attacking the rim and getting 22 second half free throws, making 18 of them. They ended up with a 32-point turnaround, winning by 15.

There is an adage in basketball that it is tough to beat a team three times. I disagree with that (slightly). That’s because if you lose, especially multiple times, it’s easier to know what your team has to fix and areas where you have to get better for the third matchup.

It’s tough to beat a good team three times. If Ball State wins the Kent State Golden Flashes are able to move past the Northern Illinois Huskies, it will set up an intriguing second round matchup between the Golden Flashes and the Cardinals.

If you’re looking for a dark horse in this tournament, Kent State might be that team. They’ve played the top two teams, Toledo and Ball State, extremely close for the majority of their matchups.

Ball State took both regular season matchups this year. The first was a defensive slugfest and a 57-46 final score. The second one came down to the final seconds with the Cardinals winning 75-71. If they match up again, the adjustments both teams make might be the difference.

The Toledo matchup in the final is one most expect. After a split in the regular season, the third matchup could be the final test for Ball State against the team that’s dominated the conference the last three years.

The bright lights

Head coach Brady Sallee hasn’t shied away from the potential uncomfortable conversations. Throughout the year, he’s mentioned how his team’s goal has been to get to Cleveland at the end of the season, cut down the net and capture the elusive NCAA tournament berth that is missing from his impressive resume.

In his twelve years as the Cardinals head coach, Sallee has reached at least 20 wins seven times. This year, they’ve already broken the program record for wins in a season, as well as conference wins.

Consider this year three of Ball State knocking on the door of a conference championship. In the last two, they’ve had the capability of capturing the title.

Two years ago, Ball State rolled into Cleveland as the fifth seed. After getting by Northern Illinois, they upset the No.1 team in the conference, Toledo, and found themselves in the championship game. In it, two Buffalo Bulls players combined for 59 points, making the difference in a 75-79 loss for the Cardinals.

While getting to the championship game in 2022 was a surprise to many, Ball State had expectations of getting back and finishing the job in 2023. As the No. 3 seed this time, they fell to No. 2 seed Bowling Green in the second round.

For what it’s worth, when the stage lights have come on this year, the Cardinals have performed well. Ball State went 3-0 in nationally televised games this season.

The talented junior class for the Cardinals has felt the feeling of being the underdog as a freshman, having expectations as sophomores and now, a sense of urgency to have them cross the bridge from the MAC tournament to the NCAA tournament.

March is the month where legacies are cemented, and it gets started for Ball State Wednesday against Ohio. Tip-off is scheduled for 30 minutes after the conclusion of the second quarterfinal game in Cleveland, Ohio.

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