MUNCIE, Ind. -- A missed alley-oop lob dunk Friday night might have saved the Ball State men’s basketball team from an expensive repair bill.
The energy inside Worthen Arena was running at a high level already when Cardinals forward Sean Sellers offered up a lob to Jeremie Tyler on a fast break. As Tyler went in for a potential rim-rattling slam, a season-best crowd of 5,160 rose to its collective feet to celebrate.
But the anticipated celebration and deafening noise level that might have blown the roof off the 24-year-old arena instead was replaced by a collective groan as Tyler couldn’t control the ball and missed the dunk.
But there were mostly euphoric cheers on this night. The reveling noise of successful seasons gone by returned to Worthen as the Cardinals posted a 63-59 victory over Northern Illinois in front of . . .
“Getting the crowd into it makes you even better,” said Cardinals forward Bo Calhoun, who yanked down a career-high 15 rebounds, one shy of a season best for a MAC player this year.
His running mate in the frontcourt, Franko House, said the buzz in the building throughout the game was something players can use as an emotional spark.
“You can definitely feel it, especially for the other team,” House said. “With a crowd like that, it’s hard to hear and get your plays called. When we come out hot like we did in the second half, it almost forces them to use timeouts and do things they wouldn’t normally do because they can’t hear.
“It was just huge for us. … You kind of run on adrenaline when you have a crowd like that. If we could get crowds like that all the time, it would make a difference. I know you probably play harder, have more energy and not think about being tired.”
Ball State (18-9, 9-5 MAC West) rode that continuous wave of momentum after breaking a 24-24 halftime tie. The Cardinals scored the first eight points in the second half and never trailed again.
With two weeks left in the regular season, the program is on the cusp of doing things it hasn’t accomplished in a long time.
Ball State, the sole leader of the MAC West, hasn’t won the undisputed division title since 2002. The Cardinals are two wins away from attaining a 20-victory season, something that has escaped the program in the past 14 years.
That’s a gaudy position for a program that two years ago claimed just five total victories and last year had only seven. But third-year coach James Whitford said his team, which is tied for the second-biggest improvement in the nation in terms of record this year, will embrace the challenge and finishing strong.
“We don’t talk about much of that other than the conference race,” Whitford said. “But (players) are certainly excited about wins, more so than a month or two ago. They certainly recognize how meaningful each game is, and we’re all aware of the conference race.
“I also think the challenge for us is to play with tremendous confidence because we’ve earned it, and also have the humility to understand the things we did to put us in position to be good are things we have to continue to do well.”
The Cardinals showed an ability to execute in the clutch in the second half by making plays against Northern Illinois (18-9, 7-7 MAC West).
House missed a free throw, but Calhoun snagged the rebound and passed the ball. It went back to Calhoun in the right corner a few seconds later and he hit an 18-foot jumper for a 45-32 Cardinal lead with 11:26 left.
Calhoun later grabbed a rebound on a missed shot, then dished to Francis Kiapway, who hit a three for a 57-48 lead with 2:35 to play.
The back-breaker for the Huskies came with 1:12 to play. The Cardinals inbounded the ball near one corner on the baseline under their basket, and Naiel Smith looked for an open man.
The pass was supposed to go to Tyler in the opposite corner, but Smith looked inside as the players on the Ball State bench yelled “Naiel!”
Smith saw Tyler come free in the corner and fed him the pass with two seconds on the shot clock. Tyler drained the three-pointer as the shot clock went off with the ball in the air, putting Ball State on top, 62-53.
“It was obviously a big basket,” Whitford said.
Calhoun, who proudly claimed teammates call him “BB,” short for Boards and Buckets, lived up to the moniker. He had 10 points and a career-high 15 rebounds for his fourth consecutive double-double. He’s averaging 13.5 points and 12.3 rebounds in that span.
“He’s earned it,” Whitford said of the nickname. “I would say my age eliminates me from giving anyone nicknames. I’ll let those guys … that stuff all goes over my head.
“To show how far Bo has come, it wasn’t even close to Bo’s best game … and I say that as a great compliment to him. … He’s our leading scorer and rebounder coming into tonight in conference games. Fifteen rebounds is a heck of a number.”
The Cardinals spread their points around. They had no double-figure scorers until 4:52 remained in the game, and finished with five. House and Kiapway had 11 each, and Calhoun, Tyler and Sean Sellers off the bench all had 10.
Sellers had five rebounds, tying his second-highest total of the season. Kiapway had no turnovers while playing much of his 30 minutes at point guard.
“It felt good to play the point and not have any turnovers,” Kiapway said. “This is my first year playing the point and I’m not really used to it, but we’ve adjusted.”
Ryan Weber suffered an eye injury and didn’t play in the final 6:52. Whitford didn’t believe the injury was serious, but Weber had trouble with his vision the rest of the game.
Senior guard Travon Baker led Northern Illinois with 19 points, followed by sophomore center Marin Maric with 13 points and 11 boards.
Northern Illinois at Central Michigan (Tuesday, 7 p.m.ET)
Ball State at Toledo (Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET)
(Courtesy of Ball State Athletics)