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Ball State’s Bahamas excursion ends with sixth-place finish

Michael Lewis’s Ball State Cardinals finished 1-2 in the Baha Mar Hoops Nassau Championship.

NCAA Basketball: MAC Conference Tournament - Toledo vs Ball State Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

An array of teams from across the country. Exotic locations. Metal bleachers. Temporary courts laid in hotel convention centers.

These are among the characteristics of Thanksgiving college basketball tournaments. These events are certainly quirky, but they are beloved by fans and student-athletes alike, setting the tone for a team’s success and confidence for the remainder of the season.

Ball State, under first-year head coach Michael Lewis, participated in the Baha Mar Hoops Nassau Championship, which lasted from November 25-27. Over this three-day span, the Cardinals squared off against respectable mid-major competition in three games.

First Round vs Vermont (11/25)

The Cardinals drew the Vermont Catamounts in the opening game of the tournament, which set up the first ever meeting between the two programs.

Although Vermont entered the game with a 1-5 record, the program is a perennial power in the American East, and is fresh off a 2021-22 season which saw 28-wins and an NCAA tournament appearance.

The first half revealed that the squad from Burlington is more talented than their early season struggles indicate. Using a balanced offensive attack with a focus on attacking the basket, the Catamounts shot the ball efficiently in the first half, with a 60.9% clip from the field.

Although the Cardinals also posted efficient shooting numbers from the field, they could not match the Catamounts’ offensive success. After the first 20 minutes, Ball State trailed Vermont 32-36.

Coach Lewis’s halftime adjustments paid dividends, as the second half was more tightly contesed. Ball State committed just four second-half turnovers and were much better from the field on offense, while defensive changes kept Vermont’s offense in check.

Despite the team’s efforts to overcome a Vermont lead that swelled to as large as 13 points, Ball State fell 73-78.

The Cardinals were paced in scoring by four players who scored in double-figures: Jaylin Sellers who scored 21, Jalen Windham who put up 12, Payton Sparks who tallied 11, and Jarron Coleman who recorded 10.

Two glaring factors contributed to the Cardinals loss to an experienced Vermont team. First, the Cardinals had almost no bench production (just 10 points from bench players), while the Catamounts’ 11-man rotation featured effective bench play (33 points from bench players). Second, Ball State struggled mightily from the charity stripe, which has become an unfortunate staple in the program. The Cardinals shot a dreadful 11-of-24 from the free throw line, leaving crucial points behind.

Second Round vs Missouri State (11/26)

Ball State’s first-round loss to Vermont led to a loser’s bracket matchup with Missouri State, a team that the Cardinals had also never previously faced.

Missouri State fell in its first round game against UNC-Wilmington, and entered the contest against Ball State with a 2-2 record. Like Vermont, Missouri State is on the heels of a successful ‘21-’22 season, as the Bears collected 23 wins, and made an appearance in the NIT.

The opening frame of the Missouri State game was eerily similar to the first half of the Cardinals’ first round matchup. Ball State had more assists, fewer fouls, and fewer turnovers than Missouri State.

Ball State arguably played a cleaner half than Missouri State on both sides of the court, but the Bears put the ball in the hole when they needed to, with seven shots from three-point range helping create a difference in what was a 35-38 halftime deficit for Ball State.

The second half had a much different tone, as the fire that Missouri State ignited on offense in the first half was put out by Ball State’s defensive gameplan. The Bears cooled off considerably, as they shot just 30 percent from the field, including 2-of-11 from deep in the second half.

Missouri State’s offensive woes allowed Ball State to fight back from its first-half deficit. Led by Payton Sparks and Demarius Jacobs in the second half, the Cardinals developed a comfortable 10 point lead with a minute remaining.

Although such a lead would normally be a dagger in most games, Missouri State’s full-court press posed issues for the Cardinals. Forcing turnovers and scoring quickly, the Bears cut the Cardinals’ lead to just two points with nine seconds remaining.

The Cardinals eventually broke the press, made a clutch free throw, and stopped Missouri State on the final play of the game to escape with a roller-coaster 67-64 win.

Ball State was led by Payton Sparks with a commanding 24 point, 12 rebound double-double, Jarron Coleman with 10 points and eight rebounds, and Demarius Jacobs with 10 points and three assists. Although his line on the box score may not be as impressive, Luke Bumbalough played his finest game of the young season, as he canned a three-pointer, and took a charge in clutch moments.

On a positive note, Ball State displayed more depth (Luke Bumbalough and Mickey Pearson Jr. played over 20 minutes each off the bench), and had a relatively strong three point shooting game (eight made three-point shots).

Still, the Cardinals struggled with free throw shooting, as they shot a grim 13-of-21 from the line.

Third Round vs San Jose State (11/27)

Ball State’s second round win against Missouri State propelled them to the fifth-place game against the San Jose State Spartans, who defeated Oakland in the previous round.

This game marked the first matchup between the two schools on the hardwood, and the first coaching matchup between Tim Miles and Michael Lewis. Lewis served as Miles’s assistant coach at Nebraska from 2016-2019.

The Spartans, who entered the game at 5-2, took advantage of their length (the average height of their starting five is nearly six-foot-seven), and the Cardinals’ offensive struggles (8-of-29 from the field and 1-of-9 from three) in the first half. San Jose State out-rebounded and out-shot Ball State over the first 20 minutes, leading to a 31-24 Spartan lead at the half.

Following in line with the first two games in the tournament, Ball State’s halftime adjustments turned the tide of the game. In the second half, the Cardinals moved the ball more effectively, shot the ball more efficiently, and made more trips to the free throw line.

Each of these areas of improvement allowed the Cardinals to erase their seven point halftime deficit, and to even control the lead for 4:52 in the second half.

Leading by three with under two minutes remaining, Ball State was positioned well to secure a comeback victory, especially with San Jose State’s seven-foot center Ibrahima Diallo fouled out of the game.

However, Ball State’s careless ball control and poor play on the glass allowed San Jose State to regain the lead in a short span.

Down 63-65 with 13 seconds flashing on the scoreboard, the Cardinals ran an alley-oop play for Jaylin Sellers, which resulted in a shooting foul. Sellers sank both clutch free throws, tying the game at 65-65 with eight seconds left.

On the final possession of the game, the Spartans’ advantage in the rebounding department again was a thorn in the Cardinals’ side. After a missed layup, San Jose State’s Robert Vaihola snatched an offensive rebound, and sealed the win with a put-back basket.

Ball State allowed a winnable game to slip away, and lost 65-67.

In another impressive performance for the Winchester product, Payton Sparks recorded a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds. Three other Cardinals scored in double figures in the tournament finale, as Jalen Windham and Demarius Jacobs both scored 14 points, and Jarron Coleman added 11.

What Lies Ahead

The Cardinals leave Nassau with a 1-2 record in the tournament, which equates to a sixth-place finish out of the eight team field. This certainly is not the performance that the Cardinal faithful would have hoped for under Michael Lewis, especially since the program has not had a winning record in a non-conference tournament since 2016.

Despite the losing record, Ball State’s wire-to-wire effort and intensity is admirable.

In each of their games, the squad made up for first half struggles by playing with more focus and resolve in the second half. This resiliency is both a credit to Lewis’s new culture, and to the athletes who have bought into it. The future could be bright for the program, especially if it continues to perform at the same level against such strong mid-major teams.

After the tournament, the Cardinals’ record stands at 4-3. Their lone game this week is on the road against the Duquesne Dukes on Saturday afternoon. Duquesne will be another formidable test for Ball State, as they are 5-1 at the moment, with the sole loss coming against Kentucky.