With each free throw Western Michigan swished during the final stretch of the contest, Ball State's five-game winning streak was jeopardized to a greater extent. In the final minute in front of the fifth-highest crowd the Cardinals have played in front of in the past decade, the streak finally collapsed.
Steve Hawkins and the Broncos (17-12, 9-7 MAC) erased a first half deficit to rally and beat the streaking Cardinals (19-10, 10-6 MAC), 87-80, in an energized environment at Worthen Arena. Entering Friday night, Ball State had only registered one home loss compared to 14 wins in its own gym. The Cardinals not only lost a rare home game — they also dropped to 13-2 when leading at halftime.
Trailing by three at the break, Western Michigan's defense came out flat in the early stages of the second half. The Broncos yielded two 3-pointers to the Cardinals and Ball State claimed a comfortable nine-point lead in Muncie, 47-38.
But several sequences later, Western Michigan's Bryce Moore canned a three of his own and launched a 19-5 run with 17:13 left in the second half. The run would not only tie the game at 54, but allow the team to surge to a 59-54 lead. The Broncos were not in the clear yet, however. Ball State secured a quick 4-point, two-possession lead with as little as 4:04 left on a Tayler Persons layup, but the defense couldn't stop the visitors from Kalamazoo.
Western Michigan claimed the next three field goals of the game, each of them high-percentage layups. Moore's drive to the basket off of an offensive rebound vaulted the Broncos ahead at 76-75. Then, disaster struck Ball State in the worst way. After a rare miss from Sean Sellers from 3-point range (Sellers broke the Ball State career 3-pointers made record in the first half), the Cardinals fouled Western Michigan sophomore shooting guard Reggie Jones from beyond the arc.
Jones nailed his first two free throws, and the third spun around iron a seemingly infinite number of times as everyone in the arena watched their hearts throb at a rapid pace. The impactful shot eventually sunk, providing the Broncos a safe 79-75 lead, instead of a one-possession advantage, with 1:08 to go.
A second-consecutive missed Ball State three turned the rest of the game into a free throw shootout for the Broncos, and Thomas Wilder aced his closing duties. In the final 68 seconds, Moore and Wilder combined to shoot a perfect 11-of-11 from the free throw line, leaving Muncie with a strong momentum-gaining victory as the MAC Tournament approaches.
But a fired-up Ball State crowd quickly turned into a sea of boos as Western Michigan converted an uncontested layup as time expired to claim a 7-point victory, pushing the two MAC West programs closer to each other in the standings.
Jones and Wilder were the Broncos' two primary stars Friday night. Jones led the team with 20 points off the bench to complement seven rebounds and five assists in an all-around stellar showing. And although Wilder couldn't get into a rhythm from the floor, his clutch free throw shooting (responsible for 10 of his 18 points) was vital to the victory.
The Broncos, fourth in the MAC standings, finish their season with two in-state opponents. Eastern Michigan travels to Kalamazoo for a Tuesday night clash and Central Michigan will host Western Michigan on March 2.
Ball State, which retains its potential 3-seed spot, lost its final home game of the 2017-18 regular season after dominating foes at Worthen Arena all year long. The Cardinals travel to Mount Pleasant to battle the Chippewas Tuesday night and finish the schedule off at Northern Illinois on March 2.