BY MATT CRAIG | Ball State Sports Link | The Athletic
This story was originally published at The Fieldhouse, The Athletic’s national college basketball platform.
SOUTH BEND — For a few brief moments, members of the Ball State basketball program could smile.
The Cardinals’ 80-77 upset of No. 9 Notre Dame on Dec. 5 was easily the biggest win in coach James Whitford’s five-year tenure and the school’s first victory over a ranked opponent since the “Wowie in Maui” triumphs over Kansas and UCLA at the 2001 Maui Invitational.
While Notre Dame unquestionably had a poor shooting night, Ball State controlled the glass on both ends, grabbing 13 offensive rebounds and allowing only four. And down the stretch, the Cardinals hit big shot after big shot to fend off what many at Purcell Pavilion assumed would be an inevitable run by the Irish. Digging itself out of a six-point hole in the final two minutes, Notre Dame pulled even on Matt Farrell’s 3-pointer with 24 seconds left. But Tayler Persons answered with a contested 3 with 1.7 seconds remaining.
Upon his arrival in the locker room, Whitford was ambushed by his players with cups of water as he raised his arms and hopped into a mosh pit. The moment was almost as therapeutic as it was joyous.
“I am so proud of you guys,” Whitford told his team. He could barely get the words out. “So proud. What an incredible win against a great team. We hung in there and fought for 40 minutes, and I don’t think I put us in a very good position on that final play.” Then as he turned to Persons, Whitfield added, “But you hit a hell of a shot.” The players erupted.
A little more than three months ago, such a scene would not have seemed possible, as the team gathered in late August for a somber occasion. Dressed all in black, players and coaches walked by a casket to say their goodbyes to Zach Hollywood, a 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman.
Hollywood was a mamma’s boy, and he had been struggling since losing his mother to ulcerative colitis in August 2016. He sat by his his mother’s bedside as she took her last breaths. Less than a year later, he was given a heartbreaking diagnosis: He too had ulcerative colitis.
Trey Moses, a junior forward, woke up on the morning of Aug. 22 to four missed calls and a pair of voicemails from Hollywood. He and sophomore forward Kyle Mallers went to Hollywood’s apartment, where they found their friend and teammate’s body with a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Moses, who was already dealing with depression, has taken the news the hardest, saying not a day goes by that he doesn’t think about Hollywood.
In the wake of the tragedy, the university employed a sports psychologist to work with the team and shut down all media inquires on the topic outside of an interview Whitford gave to the Muncie Star Press. During the team’s media day, Whitford broke down when asked about the grieving process. “We all lost a good friend and our players lost someone they really care about,” he said. “I wouldn’t minimize for one second how impactful it’s been. It’s been extraordinarily impactful.” He added: “I feel like it’s brought us very close together as a team. Zach is going to be with us for a long time.”
Persons’ game-winning 3 gave him 24 points for the game, matching the number that Hollywood wore on his Ball State jersey. Moses, who had a big bucket in the final two minutes, now wears the number to honor his lost friend.
After the game, Persons took to Twitter with a simple message, which has become rallying cry for the Cardinals. #RIPWOOD, or R.I.P Wood.
It’s been a challenging season on the court for the Cardinals as well. They opened their season with what was almost an upset victory at Dayton. Persons scored as time expired to give Ball State what it thought was a one-point victory. However, officials put time back on the clock, and the Flyers won on a layup off of a Hail Mary pass.
From there, Ball State traveled more than 6,000 miles in a week, suffering blowout defeats at Oklahoma and Oregon before enduring a close loss at Bucknell. The Cardinals certainly maintain hopes of winning the Mid-American Conference and earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but it will be difficult to top what they experienced on Tuesday, winning on the road over a top-10 team as an 18-point underdog.
But this season will continue to be about much more than basketball. Just hours after helping his team pull off one of the biggest victories in program history, Moses couldn’t get his mind off of Hollywood. “I miss him so much,” he tweeted. “I’ve been struggling with it a lot, but I’m doing everything I do for you.”
The Cardinals will play on, rejuvenated but with heavy hearts.