NASSAU, Bahamas — Even in a sub-optimal performance, Ball State had its chances to earn a victory against the toughest opponent on its schedule yet.
Ball State (3-2) fell to the Vermont (2-5) by a 78-73 final in the first round of the Baha Mar Hoops Nassau Championship. Free throws cost Ball State a winnable game, as did some defensive lapses as it tried to mount a comeback. But Ball State didn't fold when Vermont went on runs. The Cardinals went down by double-digits early, tied the game early in the second half and was in a position to win against one of the best Mid-Major teams over the past few years in the final minutes.
Here are three takeaways:
Free throws, lapses cost Ball State
Ball State was down 67-63 after hitting a pair of free throws with just over four minutes left to play. Vermont had a possession which saw a pair of missed 3-pointers, including one which bounced off the side of the backboard, two offensive rebounds and ended with a wide-open 3 by Finn Sullivan, his first points of the game, to put Vermont up 70-63 with 4:20 to go.
It was that kind of day for Ball State. Vermont made enough plays and had enough breaks to snap its five-game losing streak. Ball State also missed too many free throws, shooting 45.8% (11 of 24), to win.
"We just got to step up and make some free throws," Ball State head coach Michael Lewis said. "But I'm really proud of the effort and our purpose today. Now, the challenge, because we saw some lapses during the game, is are we able to put multiple efforts together? Now, we haven't been able to do it consistently for 40 minutes. The challenge now is can we come back in less than 24 hours to put another really good effort to try and compete tomorrow."
Ball State trailed by as many as 13 points in the first half. Vermont was winning one-on-ones, hitting contested shots and Ball State was missing too many free throws. But the Cardinals flipped a switch on defense late in the first half, forcing six Vermont turnovers in the last six minutes, going on an 11-0 run and pulling within four at halftime. Ball State had 17 points off turnovers compared to Vermont's nine.
Ball State tied the game, 41-41, early in the second half. But when Vermont hit back-to-back 3s to pull back ahead, Ball State began to rush some offensive possessions and couldn't make enough stops on defense. It led to Catamounts’ runs the Cardinals weren't able to come back from. Vermont led for 35:06.
Even in another inconsistent game, Ball State had a chance in the final minutes. But there would be no miracles for the Cardinals, whose poor free throw shooting cost it a potential win against Vermont, a team which made the NCAA Tournament last season.
Vermont's playmakers made the difference
Dylan Penn opened up the second half with an easy bucket over Demarius Jacobs in the paint. The next two possessions, Jacobs recorded a pair of blocks and helped lead to quick buckets for Ball State, leading to a 41-41 tie.
There were moments when Ball State limited Vermont’s playmakers. The Cardinals forced 15 turnovers, recording 10 steals and three blocks. But the individual efforts of the Catatmounts’ stars made the difference down the stretch.
Vermont shot 53% (28 of 53) from the field, 41% (9 of 22) from 3 and 72% (13 of 18) from the free throw line. Aaron Deloney (20 points, seven rebounds), Kam Gibson (19 points) and Penn (14 points) led the Catamounts. Whenever Vermont needed a bucket, one of its playmakers found a way to hit a contested shot in the paint, a 3-pointer or a prayer as the shot clock was expiring.
Lewis said Ball State's defense needs to be more disruptive, getting hands in faces and not allowing opposing players to get into a rhythm on offense.
The Cardinals were outrebounded 34-30 and outscored 14-7 in second chance points. Vermont's bench added 33 points.
Ball State had four double-digit scorers, led by another career-high from Jaylin Sellers (21 points), Jalen Windham (12 points), Payton Sparks (11 points, seven rebounds) and Jarron Coleman (10 points, six assists). Demarius Jacobs and Mickey Pearson added nine and eight points, respectively.
Ball State goes toe-to-toe with Mid-Major powerhouse
Vermont's record in the early portion of its schedule is deceiving. It's strength of schedule was the 27th-best in the country heading into this game and it's amid an eight-game road trip. It lost in double overtime to Cal State Fullerton and by two to USC.
The Catamounts are a good basketball team, one which has won the American East Conference and qualified for the NCAA Tournament three of the past four seasons. They have won 20 or more games each year since the 2008-09 season.
And the Cardinals, despite some of their inconsistencies, had a chance to win.
"That is a team that has won 26 games a year for a long, long time, the sixth-most winningest team in college basketball in the last six years and we just went toe-to-toe with them," Lewis said. "I want, when I flip open the laptop and I watch Vermont play, it's exactly what I want to see from my program when we build this thing. I hope in three or four years, they open up their laptop and watch film and feel about our program the way that I feel about John (Becker) and Vermont, because it is as respected a mid-major program in the country."
Ball State will no longer be competing for a championship in The Bahamas, but the Cardinals will have two more games against tougher competition than they faced in their first four games. Ball State will play the loser of Missouri State and UNCW Saturday at 12 p.m.
Lewis doesn't like to lose, but after the game he seemed positive Ball State is continuing to head in the right direction early in the season. Now, the focus is regrouping and playing consistently for 40 minutes.
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Ball State basketball: Free throw shooting costs BSU in Vermont loss