It doesn’t matter which team is at the top or bottom of the standings–when Ball State (20-3, 10-1 MAC) travels to DeKalb, Illinois, the game is usually tight.
Coming into Wednesday evening, games between the Cardinals and the Northern Illinois Huskies (10-11, 4-6 MAC) in DeKalb, Illinois have been decided by a combined nine points since 2019. With 40 seconds left, the game was on par with the last five times Ball State has traveled to Northern Illinois.
Out of a timeout, the Cardinals trailed 63-61. They used most of the shot clock trying to find a good shot, but nothing was there. In one of the few possessions the entire evening where Ball State converted on a layup, the ball found junior Nyla Hampton’s hands. She drove in for an and-one layup. She made good on the free throw to give Ball State the lead with 17 seconds left.
It looked as if the game was over. After a foul on an offensive rebound with one second left by junior Marie Kiefer, the Huskies split at the line and sent the game to overtime where they outscored the Cardinals 12-7 in the period, snapping Ball State’s 14-game win streak by a final score of 76-71.
“It’s one of those nights where clearly the ball did not fall,” head coach Brady Sallee said. “We missed just about from every place you could, at the rim, threes, free throws. It was one of those nights.”
After over three minutes of play, Northern Illinois held a 10-3 lead. There’s been games in conference play this year where Ball State has fallen behind, but the second quarter is there for the Cardinals to take over.
The Huskies had a -29 point differential in the second quarter before tonight’s game, Ball State was holding a +129 point differential in the period. Wednesday, the script flipped.
With 4:33 left in the second quarter, junior Ally Becki exited the game with her second foul. The Cardinals held a 25-22 advantage over the Huskies. On the ensuing possession, Northern Illinois knocked down a 3-pointer to tie the game back up. From there, it was all Huskies for the rest of the half, as they took a five-point lead into the locker room and outscored Ball State 25-18 in the period.
Sallee said his team had to adapt with Becki off the floor and felt confident in their depth to step up to the task.
“On a night where I didn’t feel like anything could go right, on top of that we played in foul trouble,” Sallee said.
The halftime deficit was only the second time Ball State has trailed at halftime all season. The other time was against Buffalo on Jan. 10 where they were down as much as 18 in the first half. The struggles lingered into the third quarter.
After starting the third quarter down, Becki assisted on four straight Ball State buckets to bring the score to an even 50-50 after 30 minutes of play. Senior Estel Puiggros hit two of the Cardinals’ six threes during the stretch.
The Huskies scored four straight points to start the 4th before the Cardinals went on a 9-2 run. Back-to-back 3-pointers from Northern Illinois put them up 63-59 with under two minutes left. Still, the game went to overtime where the Cardinals had more chances to separate themselves.
With Ball State up 67-64 and just over three minutes remaining in overtime, the inability to convert on close shots all night made the difference. Hampton missed a layup that would’ve put them up two possessions.
A few possessions later, senior Annie Rauch missed back-to-back point-blank layups. After a bucket that gave the Huskies the lead, Rauch was fouled and missed two free throws. Northern Illinois extended their lead on the other end to three points before Becki tried a euro-step layup that rolled off the rim.
From there, the game turned into a free throw shooting contest, where the Huskies were the better team in that category the entire night. They went 19-for-24 from the charity stripe (79.2 percent) and closed the game out. Ball State finished 9-for-20 (45 percent) at the free throw line. The Cardinals also finished just 22 percent (6-for-27) from three.
“The goal wasn’t to go unbeaten, the goal wasn’t to win ‘x’ amount of games, we want to win this league and we want to go to the NCAA tournament. We’re clearly good enough to do those things,” Sallee said.
Sallee said he doesn’t think his team lacked humility, but said it’s in moments like these where his team has to own it.
“We haven’t had a bad loss all year. This, this would fall under that category, with who we are and who they are. So what do you do with it? If you dwell on it, it’s gonna bite you in the butt. If you learn from it, it’s gonna catapult you to where you want to go,” Sallee said.
Wednesday’s loss is the Cardinals’ first loss since Dec. 6 against UConn, over two months ago. While there will be plenty of time to think about the 14-game win streak and the 10-0 start in conference play, it isn’t lost on Salle how “crazy” the run was.
“You don’t go two months without losing very often. And so there’s definitely an appreciation to it. From my standpoint, the journey has been a real joy,” Sallee said. “But we got so much basketball left in us and good basketball left in us that my focus becomes way more slanted towards where this thing is going than where it’s been.”