BY TYLER BRADFIELD | Ball State Sports Link
February 7, 2018. 5:03 PM.
Ball State women’s basketball welcomes Eastern Michigan into Worthen Arena just two hours from now.
For the Cardinals, this interdivisional meeting follows perhaps their most frustrating, head-scratching loss of the season at Ohio. Ball State fell for just the fourth time all year.
After a perfect 11-0 non-conference start with wins over Purdue (Big Ten), Vanderbilt (SEC), Butler (Big East) and Western Kentucky, Ball State has suffered four losses in conference play.
Perhaps this serves as a small suggestion to a larger picture across the Mid-American Conference? A league, thirsting and begging for multiple bids into the NCAA Tournament this year. With six teams ranked in the country’s Top 100 and the seventh-strongest conference in the country in RPI, those cries seem legitimate.
At Ohio, a horrendous first half led Ball State into a 25-point hole against a team without one of their top scorers, Amani Burke.
“Honestly, there wasn’t a whole lot of screaming,” said Coach Sallee as he stepped off the floor, recalling his halftime conversation. “It was more, hey, who are we? First time we have been down all year. We’re going to learn a lot.”
The Cardinals discovered an internal fight, which allowed a 25-point deficit to be erased. Although, Ball State took a fourth quarter lead, Ohio’s execution down the stretch led to an 80-76 loss
“That grit and toughness will get us a long way as we move forward,” added an optimistic Sallee.
Just four days later, Eastern Michigan has arrived for the first test.
Junior Carmen Grande walks from the locker room onto the floor with a Nike basketball tucked under each noticeably toned arm. She is 30 minutes in front of her teammates per usual.
Small talk between early arriving media members from the court is the cause for the only smattering of noise inside the empty 11,500-seat facility.
Red, inclining stadium seats ascend in each direction from the court.
The 1,500 fans responsible for claiming those seats in roughly two hours have yet to file through the door.
Grande greets the media members with the usual smirk. A group she would identify more closely as her friends than members of the press at this point. A quick loud horn and test of the sound system interrupts the quiet conversations.
The four digital clocks on each angle of the arena have yet to be set in countdown to the 7:00 p.m. start.
The Spanish point guard from Madrid walks to the baseline. Her parents just wrapped up an extended two-week vacation to the states from Madrid, a place sitting fondly in Grande’s heart.
“I love it. I miss the food sooooo muuuuuuch,” she jokes in a subtle laugh.
Standing along the baseline, nearly 4,000 miles from home, Grande goes through a set of ball handling drills.
Two basketballs, one controlled by each hand. From a stationary, crouched position, she dribbles one ankle-high in rapid fire. The other slams against the hardwood and bounces above her head. “One high, one low,” she calls it. She switches hands.
Next is a series of figure eights, front to back, side to side, among other combinations. Nothing is too far from the ordinary just under two hours until game time.
For Grande, this is a routine she has put herself through countless times. It’s the same discipline she runs through prior to every game. In fact, it is the identical configuration she will regurgitate almost six hours from now after the game has concluded and the arena has cleared.
It’s a first-to-the-floor, last-to-leave mentality.
This habitual routine, dedicated work ethic and driven motivation suggests a sliver of explanation as to why Grande is leading the Mid-American Conference in assists per game and ranks second nationally in the same statistical category (9.6 assists per game).
“I don’t go into a game like ‘okay, I need eight assists,’” Grande said. “I just play the game and stuff happens.”
That “stuff” — consisting of needle threading passes to players in stride, stunning speed and crafty ball handling— was on full display against Eastern Michigan. Finishing with eight assists and a career high 25 points – and more importantly to her, a 91-85 bounce back win – Grande exits the tunnel of the arena with plans to return later.
Grande has entertained and dropped the jaws of Ball State fans since 2015 when she took over the starting point guard role from day one as a freshman. As a three-year starter, fueled by a tireless work ethic, Grande has grown into a popular face across campus.
Shortly after her late night visit to the arena, a national audience captures a glimpse of Grande too.
Coach Sallee has returned to his Yorktown home. He now sports bags under his eyes while watching tape of the win just hours prior. Grande has since left Worthen for good. The time is now 1:55 AM. The only thing separating Sallee from some much needed sleep is one more evaluation of their blitz defense package.
The white noise from his television in the background catches his attention
*Da da da. Da da da*
ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 flashes across his screen.
“Eastern Michigan against Ball State. Carmen Grande inbounding the ball for Ball State. ‘Oh! No you didn’t!’ Off the defenders back and lays it in. That’s Grande for Grande.”
Grande checks in at No. 4 on tonight’s edition. A smile runs across Sallee’s face.
— Brady Sallee (@BSUCoachBrady) February 8, 2018
Since Grande’s arrival, Ball State fans have enjoyed similar highlight plays such as bouncing it off defender’s backs or wrapping the ball around her waist prior to a no look pass in transition. They are all pretty common these days with Grande.
With her in Muncie, the team has seen three consecutive seasons of 20+ wins, a program first. That includes their current 21-4 record, on pace to be one of the best seasons in program history – depending upon postseason outcomes.
She has positioned herself to not only be the best point guard in school history, but conference history and even claim a stake in the national conversation.
Grande has already set the school record for career assists as a junior with a constantly growing total of 642.
Her name printed in black ink elsewhere in the record book for assists in a game (14) and single season (244). That single-season mark stands as a figure she will likely re-establish in her next game with 239 currently this year.
“I’m not going to put the pressure on myself of ‘No you have to break this record, keep doing this,’” Grande said on the milestones. “I’m just going to do whatever helps my team.”
But, for some context, with around 40 games left in her career, Grande is on pace to accumulate over 1,000 total assists. It would shatter the Mid-American Conference women’s record 810 assists set by Ohio’s Marti Heckman in 1986. Chalk that up with D.J. Cooper’s MAC men’s record 934 assists.
Nationally, only eight players – men or women – have surpassed 1,000 assists during their college basketball career.
- Suzie McConnell (Penn State, 1985-88) – 1,307
- Andrea Nagy (FIU, 1992-95) – 1,165
- Courtney Vandersloot (Gonzaga, 2008-11) – 1,118
- Bobby Hurley (Duke, 1989-93) – 1,076
- Chris Corchiani (NC State, 1987-91) – 1,038
- Ed Cota (North Carolina, 1996-00) – 1,030
- Jason Brickman (LIU Brooklyn, 2010-14) – 1,009
- Tine Freil (Pacific, 1990-93) – 1,008
A year from now, Grande’s name is scheduled to be somewhere amongst those.
Despite the continued success, her name falls short of this year’s watch list for the Nancy Lieberman Award.
The annual award is given to the nation’s top point guard who best personifies Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman and based on the skills of floor leadership, play-making ability and ball handling.
Western Michigan’s Deja Wimby is the only point guard from the Mid-American Conference mentioned.
- Deja Wimby: 11.3 points, 5.7 assists, 2.3 steals per game. (WMU record: 14-12)
Just a simple statistical comparison from other point guards across the conference…
- Carmen Grande (BSU): 12.2 points, 9.6 assists, 2.8 steals (Ball State record: 21-4)
- Presley Hudson (CMU): 18.0 points, 5.3 assists (Central Michigan record: 21-4)
- Stephanie Reid (UB): 11.7 points, 7.2 assists, 2.7 steals (Buffalo record: 21-4)
- Lauren Dickerson (M-OH): 20.9 points, 5.4 assists, 2.0 steals (Miami record: 16-9)
Wimby is more than deserving of the recognition, perhaps this funnels back into the conversation of the widespread talent across the MAC this year.
Grande’s dazzling passes allowed many of her teammates to climb into the record books as 1,000 point scorers.
She helped Renee Bennett, Jill Morrison, Moriah Monaco, and Ball State’s all-time leading scorer Nathalie Fontaine each accomplish the feat.
As a double-figure scorer as well, Grande is additionally on pace to score more than 1,000 career points herself. A milestone only 27 players in school history have eclipsed.
She’ll be a slight stretch for conference player of the year this season. An award usually reserved for a player leading the league in scoring. But, her value to Ball State is unmatched across the league.
Between facilitating and scoring, Grande accounts for 32 points a game, higher than any other player in the conference.
“I’m just trying to help my team win. It’s my passes and my vision. I want to win”
What Grande is doing at Ball State is a national rarity. She’s putting together one of the best point guard careers in college basketball history – men or women’s basketball.
Grande’s numbers speak for themselves. She’s leading an up tempo offense currently scoring better than 80 points per game. With a talented roster around her, she has Ball State in heavy consideration of being one of those MAC teams qualified for an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.
She has led Ball State to a consistent ranking within the country’s top 40 in RPI. They have received votes in the AP Top 25 and coaches poll. The leadership is there.
Not to mention she has accomplished all this while running the offense in an English language second to her native Spanish tongue. An angle rarely receiving coverage with how well she has adapted to the American culture in less than three years.
In the meantime her goal is simple.
“I want to be a reference to the team: mentally, physically, scoring, assisting, just carrying the team. I want to win.”
Her “first-to-the-floor, last-to-leave” mentality has led Ball State into hopefully a top three seed in the MAC Tournament less than three weeks away.
But, with just four games left in the regular season, the individual recognition, record books or awards are the least of Grande’s concerns at this time — her sights on a much larger goal.
“There’s a bigger goal. MAC Champs. NCAA Tournament bids. Those will fall into place if we continue to trust and put things together.”