For the second time this season, the Miami RedHawks used the Ball State Cardinals as a bounce-back opponent.
Last month, Miami lugged a four-game losing streak into Muncie, Indiana, and left with its first Mid-American Conference victory.
On Tuesday, after losing to MAC-cellar-dweller Western Michigan in overtime on Saturday, the RedHawks bounced back again versus Ball State despite not tallying a field goal in the last 11 minutes.
Miami (14-12, 6-7 MAC) fended off a second-half Cardinal comeback to hold on for a 69-66 win. It didn’t come without difficulties.
The RedHawks shot just 23 percent from the field in the second. Sophomore guard Nike Sibande made their last field goal, a 3-pointer to make it 58-46, with 11:35 left. The last 11 Miami points came at the free throw line.
“It’s unbelievable,” head coach Jack Owens said. “At the end of the day, the guys stepped up and shot free throws with confidence. We were able to win the game that way.”
Miami got the victory with an undermanned frontcourt. Freshman forward Eli McNamara missed the game after getting injured in practice this week, and sophomore forward Dalonte Brown went down with a hip pointer just a minute and a half into Tuesday’s opening period.
Precious Ayah stepped up in their absence.
The redshirt sophomore forward recorded career highs in minutes (28), points (11) and rebounds (13). He combined with junior forward Bam Bowman (eight boards) to out-rebound Ball State 38-34.
“Oh man,” Owens said. “Proud of Precious. He’s a guy that’s been battling injuries and everything else, and to be able to stick it out and do what he did tonight, just happy for him. He’s a guy that’s been bringing his hard hat to practice and just continuing to compete and help the team in any capacity. That’s what we need. No matter who’s out there, he’s cheering for him, and now he had his time, and the guys are happy for him, as well.”
When Brown checked out of the game at 18:29, Miami trailed 4-3. Ayah started making a difference as soon as he stepped onto the court, blocking a layup on his first possession and giving the RedHawks a 5-4 lead with a layup a minute later.
After the Cardinals (14-12, 5-8 MAC) tied the game at 10, another Ayah layup put Miami ahead again. The RedHawks never trailed the rest of the way.
They shot 53 percent from the field and turned the ball over only four times in the first half, leading to 41 points and a six-point advantage at the break.
That changed in the second half.
Overall, Miami converted five field goals and shot a dismal 23.8 percent from the field and gave it away 13 times in the second.
The turnovers worried Ayah.
“What? Seventeen turnovers?” Ayah said with a sigh. “We’re going to hear about the turnovers and everything in practice.”
Luckily, efficient shooting from the charity stripe saved the day.
After Sibande made the triple to put the RedHawks up 12 with 11:35 to go, they countered their lack of field goals by getting to the line often. They made 11 of their final 12 free throws, including a 4-for-4 combined effort in the final minute by Bowman and freshman guard Mekhi Lairy.
Lairy’s free throws put Miami up 69-66 with three seconds remaining in the contest.
As the clock expired, BSU redshirt senior guard Tayler Persons got open and shot a deep 3-pointer, but it clanked off the rim, ending the game and allowing the RedHawks to avoid a second overtime game in four days.
“I just didn’t want the ball to go in,” Ayah said. “It was a long game already, so I was just ready to go home.”
Aside from Ayah’s breakout performance, Sibande scored a game-high 17 points, while Bowman fell two rebounds short of a double-double. He had 12 points.
Persons led Ball State with 16 points. His backcourt mate, redshirt junior guard K.J. Walton, finished with 11.
Miami visits Akron on Saturday as the season enters its final five games. The contest is scheduled for 2 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN+.