By Doug Zaleski
MUNCIE, Ind. -- Ball State arguably played its best game of the non-conference season in November when it beat a Valparaiso team that featured strong returning talent from last year’s NCAA Tournament outfit. But the Cardinals might have saved their best performance of the year for their Mid-American Conference men’s basketball opener.
Coach James Whitford declared Wednesday’s 87-69 throttling of Toledo in Worthen Arena his team’s most complete game of the season.
There was little to argue about.
“I thought we performed at all levels,” Whitford said. “We were . . .
“We took care of the basketball, were outstanding defensively against a great player (Toledo center Nathan Boothe), and our transition defense for the most part was good.”
With seven MAC teams winning at least nine games during the non-conference season, the battle for supremacy in each division promises to be a dogfight.
The Cardinals (10-4, 1-0 MAC West) set the tone for that 18-game haul by shining against the Rockets (9-5, 0-1 MAC West), who had won their previous four games in Worthen.
“The first thing coach said when he came into the locker room was that this was as good a win as Valpo, coming out and beating a quality team the way we did,” said Cardinals forward Ryan Weber, who scored a game-high 21 points. “We played a really complete game.”
Whether intentional or not, Ball State served notice that it intends to be in the mix for a high finish in the conference.
“It feels good,” Cardinals forward Bo Calhoun said. “But honestly … last year we started out 2-0 (in the MAC) and it ended up not the way we wanted. We’re just going to keep pushing, but this is a good start.”
Toledo entered the game as the MAC’s highest-scoring team with an 82.2-point average. But a strong defensive performance against the Rockets’ top player, Boothe, and a good effort overall on defense kept Toledo 13 points under its average.
Calhoun played a big role on defense while guarding Boothe, the MAC’s No. 2 scorer and third-best rebounder. The 6-foot-9 senior had modest totals of 16 points and six rebounds.
“I thought Bo was outstanding on Nathan Boothe,” Whitford said. “That was the best defensive game Bo’s had since I’ve been here.”
The good defense by the Cardinals translated to an effective offense. They shot near 50 percent from the field throughout the game and finished at 48.4 percent.
They also made a season-high 13 3-point field goals on 30 attempts, with Weber hitting 4-of-7 and Francis Kiapway (16 points) making 3-of-6.
Ball State committed a season-low six turnovers.
“We certainly had a good rhythm,” Whitford said. “When Bo hit that shot from the top of the key, I said to myself, ‘Now everything is falling.’ ”
Calhoun swished a 23-foot jumper as the shot clock expired to lift the Cardinals to a 74-56 lead with 5:52 to play. They went on to lead by 22 points with 2:38 remaining.
Three players joined Weber and Kiapway in double figures. Jeremiah Davis had 13, Calhoun 12 and Jeremie Tyler added 10. It was the first time the Cardinals had five players in double figures since last Feb. 14 against Bowling Green.
Calhoun and Weber each had seven rebounds.
One of the most eye-popping lines was turned in by point guard Naiel Smith, who had six steals, seven assists and five rebounds. His six steals were the 12th-highest single-game total in school history.
“You know how hard that is to do in a game?” Whitford said. “It happens once in every 1,000 college basketball games, maybe. It’s really unique. And it was important tonight.”
Ball State’s bench, featuring mainly Tyler, Davis and Franko House, was limited to seven points in the first half. The trio responded with 24 points in the second half to help the Cardinals tally 49 points after halftime.
Ball State played without backup forward Sean Sellers, who missed the game with a leg injury. His status is day to day.
NEXT: Ball State is at Ohio (2 p.m. ET). Toledo is at Miami (4 p.m. ET )