TERRE HAUTE —
When trying to figure out how a team won a game it’s easy to over-think it.
Sometimes a victory is as simple as having better individual talent. The good news for Indiana State’s men’s basketball team on Saturday in its season opener against Ball State was that the Sycamores possessed better goods.
ISU’s leading lights shone bright enough to help the Sycamores defeat the Cardinals 82-73 in front of 7,221 at Hulman Center.
Dawon Cummings had a career-high 21 points and made his first five 3-pointers of the contest to stake ISU to a lead it never relinquished. Cummings made 6 of 8 3-pointers overall.
“It really started with our preparation. We knew they’d be a pack-line defense. The person on the ball would create pressure, but everyone else would be in the gaps. We just rotated the ball a couple of times and got simple spot-up shots. I was just feeling it tonight,” Cummings said.
Jake Odum added 17 points, had seven assists and was 10 of 11 from the line. Manny Arop converted 6 of 8 from the field and had 14 points. Justin Gant played through a sprained right ankle and contributed 11 points and five rebounds.
“I think we have good offensive players and we’re going to be able to score,” ISU coach Greg Lansing said.
All of the above players provided plenty of quality for the Sycamores and it was needed.
In other aspects of the game, particularly those less measured in individual quality than team quality, ISU wasn’t sharp. ISU’s team defense was off-kilter as the Cardinals shot 53.2 percent from the field. Ball State guard Jesse Berry led all scorers with 23.
Despite a 56 percent shooting performance, ISU’s communication on offense wasn’t to the desired level and the Sycamores were turnover-prone in the opening half with nine giveaways. The dropoff in quality from ISU’s starters to its bench was also significant.
Much of it can likely be chalked up to first-game jitters and re-adjusting to game speed. But that doesn’t mean the Sycamores were happy about it.
“There’s going to be nights where we’re not making shots and we have to buckle down a lot more on that defensive end,” Lansing said. “We have to have more defensive tenacity and be unselfish on the offensive end.”
Lansing said Odum and Cummings played the worst defense out of any Sycamore on the floor.
“A lot of those mistakes came from myself,” Odum said. “We can’t let a team score 73 or shoot 56 percent from the field, but if we’re scoring 82 that’s a give-and-take situation. We do need to have more bite to our defense.”
Playing literally inches away from the courtside seat occupied by Larry Bird — whose statue in front of Hulman Center was dedicated before the game — Cummings did a pretty good impression of the ISU legend to start the game. Cummings scored three 3-pointers in ISU’s first five possessions to stake the Sycamores to a 9-3 advantage. When Ball State closed the gap to 17-14, Cummings hit two more three’s to make it 23-17.
Cummings admitted that it was fun to make those shots with Bird looking on.
“I think he rubbed off on me a little bit,” Cummings said.
Ball State was well aware of Cummings’ shooting ability, but still couldn’t stop the senior.
“He got loose a little bit in the first half. We told our players some were tough, some were wide-open. I don’t care about the tough ones. If he makes those? All power to him,” Ball State coach James Whitford said. “Odum created a few for him with his penetration. He collapsed our defense and kicked out.”
For most of the rest of the first half, the Sycamores and Cardinals engaged in a tit-for-tat scoring splurge. At one point, ISU scored on eight consecutive trips, but Ball State scored on eight of 10 possessions over the same period.
Ball State closed the gap to one with just over a minute to go. Gant then converted a reverse layup and a 3-pointer to make it 40-32, and after a pair of Cardinals free throws, Gant and Odum got crafty.
On an inbounds pass with just over a second left in the first half, Odum inbounded to Gant, who quickly batted it back to Odum. Ball State’s defense reacted late on Odum’s long 3-point heave and he was fouled. He made all three free throws to give ISU a 43-34 halftime lead. The gap built gave ISU a spark in the second half.
ISU cut down on its turnovers after the break and its lead peaked at 53-38 with 16:19 left when Arop converted a layup.
From there, ISU kept Ball State at arm’s length, but not always comfortably. Ball State cut the deficit to 64-58 with 9:54 left, but a 7-2 ISU run kept the Sycamores in front. ISU’s lead never slipped below a seven-point gap for the rest of the game, but neither did the lead get higher than 11.
The win was significant in the long history of the ISU-Ball State series. ISU has its first three-game winning streak against Ball State since 1980. That’s nice for ISU to have considered the two state rivals compete for many of the same recruits.
ISU next plays at Belmont in Nashville, Tenn. on Thursday. It is part of a single-season home-and-home series. Belmont returns the game and plays at ISU on Dec. 28.