MUNCIE, Ind. — Thursday's non-conference game against in-state rival IUPUI didn't show what Ball State's women's basketball team is about. Or ... maybe it did?
There were frustrating moments for the Cardinals as shot after shot seemed to find a way to go anywhere but inside the hoop. Ball State started off the game shooting 13.6% (3 of 22) from the field and 8.3% (1 of 12) from 3. Not great.
In the second quarter, with Ball State trailing, sophomore Ally Becki made a nice move, throwing off a defender and floating the ball toward the rim with her left hand. It rimmed out. After the miss, you could see the frustration on Becki's face. Later in the quarter, head coach Brady Sallee put his hands on his head, threw them up in the air and shrugged after Ball State blocked a shot, only to see an IUPUI player grab the board and put the ball back in the hoop.
For as uncharacteristically poor as Ball State shot in the first half, Sallee was confident his team would get over their early shooting woes. Even after a rough first half, the Cardinals only trailed by two points (27-25). Ball State would go on to win 61-54, with Becki emulating, and scoring, the same move she missed on earlier in the game on BSU's final possession to seal yet another Cardinals' win.
"I mean, some might call that ugly basketball, I call it winning basketball," Sallee said. "When you can't get shots to drop and you still find a way. ... It was a heck of a game with two teams with a lot of pride and we'll certainly take it and feel good about what we did to get it."
However you want to slice it, a win's a win. And Ball State has been doing plenty of winning up to this point. Sitting at 7-2, the Cardinals are having one of their best starts in Sallee's 11-year tenure at Ball State. The only team to start the season with a better win-loss record was the 2017-18 group which began 14-1, which included 11 consecutive victories to start the year.
Ball State's only losses this season came at then-ranked No. 9 Notre Dame and in the season-opener at Tennessee Tech when the Cardinals got off to a rough start and just fell short of a come-from-behind win.
The Cardinals have now won five straight.
"In a game like this when you can't get them to drop and everything is absolutely a grind, you know, now you see what you're made of," Sallee said.
Going into the locker room at halftime, Sallee admitted he didn't have to tell his team much. The shots they were taking weren't bad selections, they just weren't going in. IUPUI's were.
Ball State came out and looked like the same team of fast-paced group of backs, crashers and keys (non-traditional positions implemented by Sallee last season) in the second half as they looked in the first half.
There's no magic recipe for this group. Ball State, which entered the game 87th in the NCAA Women's Basketball NET Rankings, is good. Against IUPUI, it showed it can win even when it's maybe not having its best night.
"I think that we learned that we can face adversity, all different types, because it was frustrating in the first half," sophomore Alex Richard said, "and for us to come out after halftime and have a big third quarter, you know, that means everything."
Statistically, Ball State's game against IUPUI will go down as an anomaly. The Cardinals put two players in double-digits with Becki (20 points) and redshirt senior Anna Clephane (11 points) leading the way. It has four players averaging 9.8 points or better — Clephane (13.2 ppg), Becki (10.4 ppg), graduate Thelma Dis Agustsdottir (10.2 ppg) and sophomore Madelyn Bischoff (9.8 ppg) — along with plenty of other contributors off the bench.
There were high expectations for this team coming into the season after last year's runner-up finish in the Mid-American Conference tournament. So far, Ball State's been living up to those, though tougher tests against Pittsburgh (6-3), Tarleton State (5-2) and Richmond (6-3) are ahead. Then, after a home game with Chicago State (0-10), it's time for conference play.
Ball State's upcoming schedule is no cake walk. Neither is the Mid-American Conference, where seven of 12 teams boast winning records, including six with just one or two losses. But Ball State knows what it has to do to succeed.
"I think we, as a team, we understand what we have to do and how to play and just coming out and being ready for practice and coming out for shootarounds," Becki said. "I know sometimes we give (Sallee) a heart attack around shootaround time but I guarantee you we're ready to play and even when we shot up on our court we have to show that we're the tougher team."
During the postgame press conference, Sallee used the word "impressed" when describing his team. Not just in the fact Ball State has been winning, but with how determined they are to work and allow him to coach them to get them better.
If Ball State can continue to trust each other, like Richard says they do, and win at a rate few of Sallee's team have been able to, it should continue to be in the conversation to compete for a MAC title and NCAA Tournament berth in March.
"I'm not afraid to use the word impressed with this group," Sallee said. "... That's I think the difference nine games in with this group from some other groups I've had is their ability to game plan and understand it and go out and give me that honest effort.
"I've said this before we ever played a game, this is a fun group to coach. ... I think it speaks volumes to the leadership we have in the group, the buy-in we have in the group, the want-to we have in the group, the whole bit. I'm eager to play again already."
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Ball State women's basketball off to one of best starts under Brady Sallee