By Tyler Bradfield | @Bradfield323
The Voice of Ball State Women’s Basketball on Fox Sports Muncie
Member of Ball State Sports Link
March Madness (noun): the time of the annual NCAA college basketball tournament, known for containing exciting games and upsets.
Its that time of the year again when productivity at offices across the country drop for a few days as employees stream the NCAA Tournament to their desktops. Minimizing the online stream as the boss wanders by the cubicle asking if they finally have the weekly report ready to send out.
Friends who failed to watch a single basketball game all year suddenly become self-proclaimed college basketball experts on mid-major teams who never play on national television.
Teams book their trips to the NCAA Tournament through automatic bids as conference champions and at-large bids. On Tuesday, Ball State women’s basketball wanders into a Cleveland hotel preparing for the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Walking underneath a banner reading, “All Roads Lead to Cleveland” players and coaches dressed in their black travel suits. Ball State has won the MAC Tournament and reached the NCAA’s just one time in school history, looking for trip No. 2.
“The goal is to be playing your best basketball come March,” says Ball State women’s basketball coach, Brady Sallee, during his post game interview on the Ball State Radio Network.
Ball State had just beaten the Toledo Rockets, 68-58 on Toledo’s senior day concluding the regular season 21-8 overall and 13-5 in the Mid-American Conference. The 13-5 mark secured the 3-seed in the conference tournament.
“Come February and March, you aren’t trying to reinvent the wheel. You are, who you are at this point. You just try to play to your strengths,” Sallee answers while wearing a black radio headset on the postgame airwaves.
So who is Ball State heading into the postseason? Let’s start from the top.
Best Season Under Sallee
Since Coach Sallee arrived in Muncie four years ago, Ball State has posted their best overall record (21-8). The 20 wins mark just the fifth time in school history a team has won 20 games in a single season and the first time in seven years.
Their 42.7% field-goal percentage is the best in the conference; while, allowing the third fewest points in the conference 61.2 point per game on defense and holding opponents to shoot the league’s second lowest percentage 36.9% from the floor.
Ball State posted one of their best home records in years at 12-2 including wins over Western Kentucky, Butler, and Saint Louis.
Gauntlet of the West
“We’ve just went through the gauntlet of the West down the stretch here,” reasoned Sallee on the post game show.
Following a demoralizing loss on the road at Kent State on February 13th, Ball State dropped to 8-4 in the MAC. Kent State held the worst record in the MAC and adding salt to the wounds it was also the first time in the season Ball State had lost back-to-back games. In the losses, Ball State shot a sub-par 39% from the floor including a combined 8-for-46 from beyond the three-point arc.
From that point, Ball State focused strictly on interdivisional teams with their final six games of the year against MAC West teams. Four of those six final games on the road serving as the final tune up.
Ball State began the stretch with a 16-point win on the road at Northern Illinois.
Turning around and claiming a come-from-behind win at home against Western Michigan, 60-54. Early in the first quarter on a Western Michigan possession, Jill Morrison dove for a loose ball, and came up gingerly on her left foot. Morrison would eventually return after being pulled to the bench to play 29 minutes. The 29 minutes hazed the memory of the injury until Morrison showed up in street clothes to the next game sidelined on crutches and in a walking boot. Calyn Hosea rotated into the starting lineup.
Without Morrison, Ball State fell on the road against MAC West leader, Central Michigan by just a single point, 67-66. Nathalie Fontaine had an off-balanced three-pointer at the buzzer that slammed off the backboard and skipped off the rim similar to Gordon Hayward’s final shot in the 2010 National Championship against Duke. The only thing missing was an excited Jim Nantz yelling, “…and Duke is king of the dance, 2010.”
Due to a snowstorm, burying Ball State in 10 inches of snow and a Mt. Pleasant hotel, the team stayed in Michigan following the loss at Central on February 24th. Regrouping and staying on the road, Ball State drove the snow covered highways down to Ypsilanti for a meeting three days later against Eastern Michigan, the preseason pick to win the MAC West.
Moriah Monaco poured in 28 points with her family in attendance leading Ball State to a bounce back win. Monaco finished 8-for-15 from three-point range. Eastern with 0:36 left cut Ball State’s once 11-point lead down to just one. Ball State would hang on with big shots from senior Shelby Merder and Monaco to steal one from Eastern 67-63 on their senior day.
Monaco’s 28 points set a new career high. The sophomore from Dover, Ohio, has regularly scored in double figures this year averaging 11.0 points per game. When she scores in double figures in her career, Ball State is an impressive 21-5.
The win over Eastern also clinched a first round bye in the conference tournament as one of the top four seeds.
Buzzer Beater, record breaker on Senior Night
A second meeting with Northern Illinois served as senior night to honor Merder and Fontaine. Entering the game, Fontaine needed to score 23 points to become Ball State’s all-time leading scorer surpassing Tamara Bowie. Her mother Daniela Ognjanovic and sister Sherie Fontaine both made the trip to Muncie from Sweden. They sat four rows behind Ball State’s bench, in attendance at Worthen Arena, for the first time in Fontaine’s college career.
With 14 seconds left, Fontaine had 19 points, four short of the record. She stepped to the foul line with her team up four and sunk both free throws. Ball State would get the ball back with 0:06 left, an inbounds from the sideline, and Fontaine a basket from the record.
Fontaine triggered the ball into freshman point-guard Carmen Grande. Grande instantly returned the ball to Fontaine 30-feet from the goal. With Ball State up six, they surely would just hold the ball for the win. However, Grande had different plans for Fontaine. “Go!,” yelled Grande in her Spanish accent, convincing Fontaine to take off sprinting with the dribble. With two long strides to the rim weaving through the defense, Fontaine flipped the ball up at the buzzer. Red lights. Horn sounds. A gasp from the crowd and her family. The ball gently kisses the glass and drops in the net. Fontaine had done it, twenty-three points on senior night, and now the all-time leading scorer in Ball State history.
Her family would meet her on the floor after the game for the first time in her college career and with reason to celebrate. The win also captured the 20th of the season.
One more in front of 4,000+
Ball State having strung two wins together concluded their regular season on the road at Toledo. The Rockets entered shooting the ball 46% over their last 10 games along with an 8-2 record during that stretch. On a high, Toledo also just downed the MAC West leading Central Michigan Chippewas.
Toledo historically receives the most fan support in the MAC. Averaging above 4,000 per game, they pace the league in attendance and rank 24th nationally among NCAA D1 women’s basketball programs.
With over 4,000 fans on hand (most of which haven’t missed an episode of the Price is Right in years nor the early bird special at Bob Evans) Ball State jumped out to a first quarter lead due to early scoring from Grande, who finished with 14 points. After sitting the last three games against Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Northern Illinois, Morrison dressed and entered off the bench in the final minutes of the first.
Since starting in Morrison’s place, Hosea averaged six points, four rebounds, and a 2.3 assist to turnover ratio. She also in that stretch scored a season-high 10 points against Northern Illinois, but was out shadowed by Fontaine’s record.
Midway through the third quarter, Ball State’s lead ballooned to 16 points. The Rockets were never able to cut the deficit thinner than five. Ball State would seal the win and finish the season 21-8, 13-5.
Now just a few days later Ball State is back in the state of Ohio, this time around in Cleveland. In the same city, the same arena, even the same hotel where they have reached the semi-finals of the conference tournament the last three years, but fallen short each time.
But something seems different than in years past. As opposed to a vacation with a sense of finality, this year has more of a business trip feel. That “All Roads Lead to Cleveland” banner in the hotel lobby splits two MAC Tournament logos. In the past two years, Ball State has stopped to pose for pictures to share on social media they had made it. The banner represented a finish line.
Checking into the hotel late Tuesday afternoon no one from Ball State stopped for a picture. They walked underneath and only a select few even gave it a glance, acknowledging the checkpoint.
“I just want a ring,” said Fontaine in the post-game press conference on the heels of her record-breaking night against Northern Illinois. That ring being a Mid-American Conference Championship ring. As Fontaine and Ball State walked underneath the hotel banner they are just three wins away from that point.
The draw is doable. As a three-seed they delay a meeting with the conference’s No. 1 seed, Ohio until a potential championship game.
The route would more than likely have to run through (6-seed) Eastern Michigan, (2-seed) Central Michigan, and (1-seed) Ohio. Ball State beat Eastern Michigan twice this year. Central Michigan barely beat a “Jill Morrison-less” Ball State by one in Mt. Pleasant in a nail biter. Ball State also had Ohio on the ropes on January 30th in Worthen Arena with a nine-point lead and just 3:09 left before Ohio rallied back for a 68-67 win.
All the MAC Tournament games from Quicken Loans Arena can be heard on the Ball State Radio Network airing on Fox Sports Muncie (102.9 FM & 1340 AM) with former Ball State Assistant, Rachel Galligan, and myself. Noah Reed and Cory Stace will have coverage on Sports Link Radio, 91.3 WCRD.