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MUNCIE, Ind. — It's been a challenging week and a half for Ball State women's basketball.
Over that stretch, the Cardinals lost their leading scorer Anna Clephane — who returned to the bench Wednesday — for the season with a torn ACL and lost three games by 13 combined points, two of which came against the No. 1 and No. 4 team in the Mid-American Conference.
But the season moves forward and while some of the pieces have changed, the expectations for head coach Brady Sallee and his team have not. Following Ball State's (9-7, 2-4 MAC) 58-55 loss to Toledo (13-3, 7-0 MAC), Sallee made that abundantly clear.
"It's all about wins, baby. (There are) no moral victories in this program," Sallee said. "... Never has been and won't be while I'm here. ... There's no feathers in the cap in our program. This is about winning ball games and winning them at a high level. So for that we're disappointed but, like every game, we'll learn from it and we'll be ready to go on Saturday."
If Ball State was looking for a moral victory, Wednesday's three-point loss could've been it. The Cardinals outscored the Rockets 21-6 in the first quarter, scoring with six different players in the first 10 minutes. Offensively, Ball State shared the ball and had Toledo on its heels. Defensively, the Cardinals' 2-3 zone frustrated the Rockets as they shot 3-for-14 in the first quarter.
But the Rockets slowed the game down and slowly chipped at the Cardinals' lead. By halftime, Ball State led by eight. At the end of the third quarter, it led by five. Ball State extended its lead to nine early in the fourth quarter, but then Toledo showed why it still hasn't lost a MAC game this season.
"I thought they picked up the pressure on the ball and we spent a quarter dribbling the leather off of it instead of moving it and it slowed us down, clunked it up a little bit," Sallee said. "Then, you know, in the second half I think we were a little bit better doing what we did and a couple missed shots here and there, we had some good looks."
Ball State led 55-52 with 3:08 left thanks to a 3-pointer from junior Estel Puiggros, but that would be the last Cardinals' basket. Down 3 following a missed jumper with :49 left, Ball State forced a turnover and had one last chance to tie the game. With :03 to run a play, junior Sydney Freeman got up a contested 3 that missed.
“Hard-fought game," Sallee said. "Again, Toledo’s a good team and I think we showed we can be a good team, as well. You know, a couple breaks there at the end, didn’t seem like we could get one but I’m really proud of my team, how hard they fought. I wish I could’ve helped them a little bit more, been a little bit better for them down the stretch. But, all in all, thought we played hard. Had plenty of chances to win and I think we feel like we should’ve, so these are the tough ones that’s for sure.”
Despite losing three of its last four games, Ball State has shown resiliency over that stretch. It's continued to see balanced effort with seven players scoring and three — graduate student Chyna Latimer (18 points, seven rebounds), senior Thelma Dis Agustsdottir (10 points, eight rebounds) and Freeman (10 points) — finishing in double-digits against Toledo. The Cardinals turned the ball over nine times in the second half, but their speed and ball movement should allow them to compete with most teams in the conference.
After Clephane was injured against Kent State, Sallee said he "didn't need anybody to fill her shoes, but I needed everyone to be a better version of themselves." And while Ball State has continued to rely on a balanced scoring effort, Latimer has stepped into a much bigger role and has been playing, statistically, the best basketball of her collegiate career.
"Watching Anna and how she goes out and plays with passion, fight every game, I told myself before the first game when she was out 'just do it because Anna can’t,'" Latimer said. "I wanted to go out there and make her proud and do what I know how to do and my teammates and my coaches had confidence in me, so that definitely helped me out there on the court.”
Latimer started the first five games of the year but has been a role player for half of the season, recording between eight and 23 minutes per game off the bench. With Clephane out, Latimer has been thrust back into a starting role and has averaged 32 minutes each of the past three games.
Against Toledo, she scored a career-high 18 points, going 8-for-14 from the field to go along with seven rebounds. Latimer scored 17 points in each of the previous two games against Eastern Michigan and Akron.
While Sallee might not have needed, or expected, someone to directly fill the shoes of Clephane — who was averaging 16.2 points per game — Latimer has done just that.
"I’ve been really impressed but not surprised," Sallee said. "I think this Chyna has been in Chyna the whole time. I think her maturity level is through the roof and, so, when she saw the circumstances and, like she said, when a teammate goes down like that, your heart steps in a little bit and this kid’s got one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever coached."
Ball State's hearts will continue to be tested as the Cardinals look to make up some ground in league play. But no matter who's on the court or who Ball State is playing, its expectations will remain the same.
This article originally appeared on Muncie Star Press: Ball State women's basketball: Expectations remain high for Cardinals