The Cardinals (13-7, 4-3 MAC) defeated the Eagles (12-8, 4-3 MAC) twice last season behind strong 3-point shooting efforts, including a school-record 18 long balls in Muncie.
Tuesday was a different story. The Cardinals . . .
It was Ball State’s fourth victory in its past five games and moved the Cardinals into a share of first place in the MAC West.
“This was our grittiest, toughest performance by a significant margin in my eyes,” Whitford said.
Franko House led six Cardinals in double figures with 17 points to go with nine rebounds, while Trey Moses recorded his fourth double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 boards.
The post players also did a number on Eastern Michigan big man James Thompson. They held Thompson to six points (eight below his average) on 3-of-8 shooting.
“We did a great job on him defensively, because he’s a load,” Whitford said. “He’s really strong and really physical. Most of his shots were mid-range shots. He didn’t get a lot of shots around the rim, and that was the key.”
Jeremie Tyler added 14 points for Ball State, while Tayler Persons (11), Tahjai Teague (10) and Ryan Weber (10) also scored double figures.
Ball State led by as many as 10 points on two occasions in the first half and took a 38-30 lead into the locker room. The Cardinals built the lead largely on the defensive end of the floor, holding the Eagles to 31 percent shooting over the opening 20 minutes.
Ball State’s bigs went to work in the second half, feeding each other from the high post. The trio of House, Moses and Teague combined for five dunks, all after halftime. The Cardinals executed so well against Eastern Michigan’s zone defense that the Eagles abandoned it for man-to-man down the stretch – a rarity for EMU.
“Trey and Franko are both good passers,” Whitford said. “They’re well suited for that . They’re able to play in tight spaces.”
Ball State withstood Eastern Michigan’s biggest push when the Eagles went on an 11-2 run to cut the lead to 59-56 with 10 minutes to go in the game.
But there was no panic on the Cardinals’ bench when Whitford called a timeout to regroup. They came out of the huddle and scored the next 11 points. When Teague slammed one home and Weber followed with a three to cap the run, it was a commanding lead again at 70-56.
Eastern Michigan rallied to cut its deficit to six in the final minute, but Ball State was able to seal the win at the free throw line.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way we won,” Whitford said. “We won it with a lot of gritty plays, things we hadn’t been doing enough of. With our guards rebounding, with hustle plays, the way we won was really meaningful to me.”
Ball State will return home Saturday to celebrate 25 Years of Worthen Arena. The Cardinals host Western Michigan at 1 p.m., and the women’s team will follow against Northern Illinois.
Eastern Michigan is at Miami Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET).