Ball State women’s basketball coach Brady Sallee called it a benchmark. He arrived to a Cardinals program before last season that had not reached a postseason tournament since 2009.
Monday night, they secured a second WNIT berth in as many years.
“It’s just awesome to think that in year two, we’ve already gone to the postseason a couple times,” Sallee said. “As we continue to build this thing, to be able to have this kind of success so early speaks volumes about the kids.”
The Cardinals learned Monday night they’d be part of the 64-team WNIT field, the program’s first back-to-back trips since the early 2000s. They will play Thursday at Northwestern at a time that will be announced today.
The Cardinals closed out what had been an up-and-down regular season and conference tournament winning seven of their final eight games. That included a run to the Mid-American Conference tournament title game, which they lost 79-68 to Akron.
At 18-16, Ball State has recorded the most wins since the 2008-09 squad that won the MAC and reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals went 17-15 in Sallee’s first season at the helm.
The WNIT field includes a pair of other MAC squads in Central Michigan and Bowling Green. The Falcons went 27-4 and were ranked No. 25 entering the MAC Tournament, but got upset by Ball State in the semifinals.
This year’s BSU squad is relatively young, but much of the roster played in last year’s WNIT run. Through the end of the season, the players bought into an identity built around stout defense, and Sallee said the chance to get more postseason experience under their belt is an invaluable one.
“They played for a championship last week, they went on that run, and now to play in a national tournament against the people we’re going to play against, it can only benefit these kids and their growth,” Sallee said of his roster that boasts six freshmen and only two seniors. “You never know who’s going to kind of have a spark and maybe have a moment where it turns the tide and catapults them into something really special here at Ball State.”
Sallee pointed out the players on his roster last season had no postseason experience to speak of. Only one player, the now-departed Shanee’ Jackson, had even advanced past the first round of the conference tournament. The past two seasons, they’ve been under the gun, having to run off a strong conference season in 2012-13 and a strong tournament this year just to make it this far.
And Ball State is looking to again make noise in this tournament. The Cardinals opened last year’s WNIT with a win at Minnesota, then picked up a home victory against Northern Iowa. They fell 60-48 in the round of 16 to Kansas State.
That left its mark on the players still around.
“To play on a Big Ten floor and win and then come home and beat Northern Iowa and then of course go to Manhattan, Kan., and play a good Kansas State team, it’s an experience you’ll remember forever,” Sallee said. “Hopefully we can take that into this one and maybe make another run.”