Ball State rode its defense to a 61-43 victory Monday at Eastern Michigan, earning a matchup against Bowling Green in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals in Cleveland.
The No. 11 seed Cardinals held the No. 6 seed Eagles to 14 points in the second half, allowing just two over the first 11 minutes. During that period, BSU outscored EMU 19-2 to turn a nine-point deficit into an eight-point lead.
Ball State never trailed again, winning on the same floor at the Convocation Center where it lost just six days earlier in its final regular season road game.
“We changed very little from the last game,” Ball State head coach James Whitford said. “No matter who you are, it’s very rarely what you do; it’s usually how well you do it. And today we did it a lot better than we did in the last game.”
Tahjai Teague scored 13 of his game-high 15 points in the second half to rally the Cardinals. Ishmael El-Amin finished with 12 points, doing the majority of his work early, and Tayler Persons also scored 12, getting most of his late.
The story on the night, however, was defense. Despite going 2-5 down the stretch, Ball State (16-16) held its final seven regular season opponents to fewer than 70 points. Still, Eastern Michigan’s 43-point output Monday was the fewest of the season for any BSU opponent -- by 13 points.
The Eagles (15-17) finished at a paltry 29.4 percent from the floor and hit just 4-of-27 (14.8 percent) after halftime. Six days after going for 20 points and 23 rebounds against Ball State, Eastern Michigan’s big man James Thompson IV managed just four and nine.
“It reminded me of how we’ve been playing a lot of the year,” Whitford said. “I thought they started to get tight.
“We struggled in that role of being a team that feels like we’re expected to win. If there’s one thing that was good for us today, it’s no one expected us to win. It actually felt good for us to be the underdog and kind of feel like it was us against the world.”
Eastern Michigan actually started the game hot. The Eagles raced out to an 11-2 lead and held a 29-20 advantage as the first-half clock ticked under one minute to play. El-Amin hit his second 3 to trim the lead to six at the break, and then the second half was all Cardinals.
Teague scored the first four points after the break. Then KJ. Walton’s bucket tied it and Kyle Mallers’ 3 put the Cardinals on top. Soon it was an eight-point lead, and the Cardinals controlled it from there.
Persons scored 11 of his 12 points in the final five minutes, as BSU pulled away.
Paul Jackson led Eastern Michigan with 12 points but finished just 4-of-19 from the floor. Kevin McAdoo added 11 for the Eagles.
Ball State is now on to Cleveland for the fourth straight season. The Cardinals will square off with No. 3 seed Bowling Green in the final game of Thursday’s quarterfinal round at Quicken Loans Arena. Tipoff time is approximately 9 p.m. on ESPN+.
(Courtesy of BSU Athletics)