By Doug Zaleski
If it’s possible to upstage a player breaking a school’s most hallowed women’s basketball record, Renee Bennett might have come close Wednesday night.
Senior forward Nathalie Fontaine became Ball State’s all-time scoring leader in stunning fashion on the final play of the game.
Yet the feel-good scene that spilled onto the Worthen Arena court wouldn’t have been the same if not for Bennett’s scoring splurge that lifted the Cardinals from a three-point deficit with four minutes left and delivered a 76-68 victory over Northern Illinois.
Fontaine was on the cusp of breaking the record when Ball State gained possession of the ball at half court, leading by six points with just 5 seconds to play. Needing only two points to become the Cardinals’ all-time scoring leader, Fontaine was content to wait for Saturday’s game at Toledo to break the mark.
But teammate Carmen Grande took the inbounds pass and gave the ball back to Fontaine with this simple instruction: “Go! Go!”
So she did. Fontaine galloped long strides from half court and scored a layup at the buzzer to finish with exactly the 23 points she needed to move past Tamara Bowie and onto the top line in the Cardinals’ record book.
The basket gave Fontaine 2,092 points, one more than Bowie compiled from 2000 to 2003. Fontaine also has 586 points this season, 32 shy of Bowie’s single-season record.
“The team’s reaction meant a lot to me,” Fontaine said.
Teammates rushed the court to celebrate with Fontaine. Not far behind were her mother, Daniela, and sister, Sherie, who traveled from the family’s home in Stockholm, Sweden, with Sherie’s young son to watch the event. Mom and sis lifted Nathalie up and carried her part of the way off the floor.
“They wanted me to do it so they could see it,” said Nathalie, who met Bowie during her freshman season in 2012-13. “It’s hard for them to watch me on TV, but I was glad to have them here.”
Daniela had seen her daughter play in a Ball State uniform a few of other times, including last Saturday at Eastern Michigan. Sherie watched her sister in person for the first time.
“I’m surprised I haven’t cried a river yet,” Nathalie said of playing her final home game and having family members enjoy it with her.
She said the reaction by the Ball State fans on the team’s Senior Night is something she’ll remember.
“It was huge to see that,” Fontaine said. “To see that kind of support, it’s going to be hard to leave this place.”
Fontaine’s point total ranks 10th in Mid-American Conference history. She’ll have an opportunity to climb even higher with one regular-season game remaining, the MAC Tournament coming up next week and a possible postseason tournament berth for the Cardinals after that.
Fontaine made 7-of-17 shots and all nine of her free throws to get the 23 points she needed. She also added 10 rebounds for her 33rd career double-double while playing all 40 minutes.
Logging that much time became necessary as Northern Illinois (11-17, 4-13 MAC West) led much of the game and the Cardinals played a third consecutive game without injured starting guard Jill Morrison.
To no one’s surprise, the Cardinals (20-8, 12-5) leaned heavily on Fontaine as she posted on the low block much of the game. And so did the Huskies’ defense.
“She got the tar beat out of her,” Ball State coach Brady Sallee said.
Sallee threw a wrinkle into the offense in the fourth quarter by moving Fontaine to the high post and planting 6-5 center Renee Bennett down low to try to keep the Huskies’ defense off-balance.
The payoff was immense. The Cardinals poured the ball into Bennett deep in the post, and the junior responded with one of the top crunch-time performances of her career. She scored 11 consecutive points to rescue Ball State from a 61-58 deficit and guide it to a 69-63 lead with 1:21 to play.
“Every time there was a timeout, what kept going through my mind was I wanted to win this game for Nat on Senior Night,” Bennett said.
Bennett started her run by scoring on a tip-in, then adding a basket at the rim. On the next possession, she stepped over the 3-point line on a shot from the top of the key and made the 18-footer for a 64-63 lead that the Cardinals never gave up.
Bennett then scored down low again before hitting a rebound basket, getting fouled and making the free throw for a three-point play and a 69-63 advantage with 1:21 to go. She punctuated her final basket with an emotional fist pump.
“I know I can do these things,” she said. “If we miss, I’m going to go get the ball.”
Sallee said the strategy on offense was to pull the defensive pressure away from the basket by moving Fontaine up high.
“Let’s let one of my other great players go to work,” he said.
Bennett, whose streak of 13 consecutive starts ended, came off the bench to claim her second double-double of the season with 17 points and 10 rebounds (six on offense) in just 21 minutes. She made 8-of-15 shots and tied her career high in rebounds.
Sallee said Morrison’s playing status is day-to-day. Despite having an injured foot that is in a walking boot, Sallee said he expects her to play in the MAC Tournament.
Ball State, which has earned a bye into the MAC Tournament quarterfinals next Wednesday, will finish the regular season at 2 p.m. Saturday at Toledo.