Relive Ball State’s upset of Notre Dame.
Ryan O’Gara, The Star Press
It was the biggest game of their careers, but it was so much more. This is the story of a night no Ball State fan will forget.
MUNCIE, Ind. — As Tayler Persons took the inbounds pass with 20 seconds left and dribbled down the Joyce Center court, ready to deliver Notre Dame a stunning loss, the only way to describe what Persons was feeling was this: Happy.
This was what he always dreamed of as a kid. Tied game, clock winding down, fans on their feet. Every set of eyes from the 8,891 in attendance on Dec. 5, 2017 watched to see what he would do. This was his moment.
So much of 2017 had been the opposite. Persons now calls it the worst year of his life. He experienced the loss of a teammate and close friend in Zach Hollywood, but it was much more than that and started much earlier. He was worried about family members and close friends from his native Kokomo. He couldn’t sleep. On the court, Persons was loud and passionate. Off the court last year, he wanted to curl up in his room and not come out.
Persons can open up about everything he was feeling, because it all helped lead him to the peaceful place he is now. But he doesn’t sugarcoat how he felt back then. Life was hard, and basketball felt like the only escape.
Just as James Whitford instructed, Persons made his move with seven seconds left and ran around a Trey Moses ball screen with 6-foot-6 Rex Pflueger staring him in the face. He dribbled once more with his left hand and rocked into the 3-pointer from the left wing with about 3.5 seconds left, letting fly what would become one of the most iconic shots in Ball State history.
Ball State 80, Notre Dame 77.
As Trey Moses says, “It was the biggest game of all of our careers.” But it was so much more. It taught lessons about life and how to conduct yourself when things don’t go your way. It made everyone remotely associated with Ball State or Muncie proud to be a Cardinal. And for Persons, the hero that night, it led to even greater things – much more important than a game-winning shot.
As the one-year anniversary approaches on Wednesday, this is the story of a night no Ball State fan will forget, with comments from several of the key participants and witnesses:
I. The buildup
Notre Dame was 7-1, ranked ninth in the country and coming off a championship at the prestigious Maui Invitational. The Fighting Irish eventually finished 21-15 and missed the NCAA Tournament as their two best players, Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell, missed significant portions of the season with injuries. But this was when Notre Dame was playing its best basketball.
Ball State, meanwhile, was just 4-4, having already lost to Oklahoma by 39 and Oregon by 24. Notre Dame was an 18-point favorite. Ball State hadn’t beaten a ranked team since 2001, when it beat No. 4 Kansas and No. 3 UCLA on back-to-back days at the Maui Invitational.
Tyson Mathews (Ball State SID): Ball State is a program that has had its share of big wins in its history, but it had been a while. People were ready for something like that to happen again.
Tayler Persons (Ball State point guard): Bonzie wasn’t hurt yet. Matt Farrell wasn’t hurt yet, so we played them when they were healthy. Since they fell off later, a lot of people don’t realize how good they were.
Trey Moses (Ball State center): I went into this game thinking, I think we can win. We play the same style. No offense to Matt Farrell, but I felt like our point guard was better. I felt like we had the guys to contain Bonzie. I felt like going into the game, we were going to win. I would’ve told anyone that before the game. I would tell them that.
Jason Grunkemeyer, Ball State’s associate head coach, delivered a passionate pregame speech in the locker room while going over Bonzie Colson, a preseason All-American, on the scouting report. It’s not something Grunkemeyer does often.
Jason Grunkemeyer (Ball State associate head coach): I pick and choose my moments. I’m pretty low key by nature. But you know what, I have the ability to keep people on guard at times. If I feel something will get to guys a little bit, then I’m not afraid to say it.
David Eha (Ball State color commentator): I remember prior to the game, I always talk with the assistant that had the scout. I remember talking to Jason Grunkemeyer, who was almost oozing with confidence. Not in a cocky way, but in a matter-of-fact manner, like, ‘I’m wondering how they’re going to match up with us,’ and not vice versa.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey shares what impressed him most about Ball State.
Ryan O’Gara/The Star Press
II. The game
While the dramatic end made it look like this was a miracle, it really wasn’t. Ball State led for for more than 26 minutes of the 40-minute game. Notre Dame led for only 9:29. Ball State held a 40-26 rebounding advantage.
James Whitford (Ball State head coach): What I remember about the game is that we were in control. We were the better team. We didn’t just win the game and luck into it. We led for most of the game, and they were the ones fighting to come back throughout the course of the game.
Eha: Sometimes in a game where you’re the underdog, it’s a matter of where you’re just making every shot, but we dominated on the glass. I remember Sean Sellers, I’ve never seen that kid play that aggressive in my life.
Moses: I came in and got Tahjai (Teague) and was guarding Bonzie, and I think he went 0 for 2 in that four-minute stretch. I came out for the next four-minute war and told (assistant coach Brian Thornton), I want him the rest of the game, even if Tahjai is in the game, I want to be on him. It’s one of those things like (Grunkemeyer) said (in the pregame speech), you can’t let this chance pass. If you look at me, at the end of my career, I’m going to be looked at more for my defense than my offense. So you have to take that challenge, no matter who it is, so that’s a challenge I wanted.
Joel Godett (Ball State play-by-play announcer): I turned to David (Eha) at the under-8 timeout and said, I think this could happen. I turned to David at the under-4 and said, I think this is going to happen.
Eha: Everyone remembers the game-winning shot, but Persons, he played an unbelievable game. I remember in the second half, there was a juncture where he went out for a couple-minute stretch. He was dog tired and Farrell is running all over the court. When Tayler went out, all of a sudden Notre Dame goes on a run. Yes, he hit the game-winning shot, but how tired he was and how he gutted that out, I thought it was incredible.
III. The shot
Farrell helped Notre Dame rally from a nine-point deficit with 6:45 left, drilling a 3-pointer to tie the game at 77 with 21 seconds remaining. Memories of previous heartbreaking losses entered the minds of some Ball State players. Whitford, instead of calling timeout, put the game in Persons’ hands.
Moses: It was like, damn. We just lost at Dayton on a buzzer-beater, we lost at Akron the year before on a buzzer-beater. Are we going to have this happen again, where we have every opportunity to beat a good team at their place? A lot of coaches would call a timeout in that situation, but I was glad we didn’t.
Eha: Coming off Dayton, I couldn’t help but think, ‘Oh God, here we go again.’ I remember thinking, ‘Oh no, please no.’ And the other thing, Persons, I just know was gassed. So had that game gone into overtime, that game would have been difficult.
Persons: I think he trusts me and that I’ll make the right play at the end of the game. It’s been that way since I’ve been there. That’s kind of his thing, though. Let the chaos be. Chaos is better for the offense because the defense is nervous. If you give them a timeout, you let them set up. I’m glad he didn’t.
Godett (on calling the final play): You live for those moments. You live that you get to be a soundtrack for those moments. It’s part of why you don’t want to mess it up because you know that’s the soundtrack of history.
Persons: I got the ball and I was just happy. This is how I always grew up, just dribbling down the court, the crowd being loud and hitting the game-winning shot. I feel like every player does. I knew I was going to make it for some reason. The rest is kind of history. I didn’t know how to react. I just didn’t want them to hit a half-court shot.
Mike Brey (postgame): Hell, I thought (Rex) played pretty good D on the last shot, which was a bomb. Give (Persons) credit. He was so confident. He’s a really good player.
IV. The celebration
Kyle Mallers (Ball State forward): I remember when we won, I was getting chills. And I still get them when I think about it.
Moses: The celebration, water was going everywhere. You would’ve thought we won the World Series. That’s the moment I’ll always remember. With everything that happened that year, that’s the most together we were. That was the biggest game of all of our careers.
Mathews: I’ll always remember the locker room moment. Just the joy of those guys in there, the excitement and enthusiasm. They deserved something good like that to happen after all the work they put in.
Whitford: Francis (Kiapway) and Tayler were talking about pouring Gatorade on my head. (Grunkemeyer) talked them out of it. He said, ‘Let’s save that for when we get the big one.’ That’s what it’s supposed to be for.
Persons: On Twitter, it was too much to handle. I didn’t really know what to say. I tried to make a tweet to everyone to say thank you. I just wanted to talk to my dad because I knew how happy he was. All these moments, it really makes me happy he could be there. I know when I hit that, it was like he hit that. I love that I can make him and my family happy.
Zach Hollywood, a redshirt freshman at Ball State, took his own life on Aug. 22, 2017. He was a beloved member of the team and especially close with Trey Moses and Tayler Persons. Reminder: If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call for help at 1-800-273-8255.
Moses: My dad gives me a hug, but after that the first person I see is (Zach Hollywood’s) aunt. I immediately just lose it. I start crying. That presence was there, like an angel looking out. I literally sat there and cried for 10 minutes while hugging her. It was mind-blowing. I didn’t know she was coming. The second I saw her, I knew we were meant to win this game and I was meant to play as well as I did.
Godett: I had always said that after Zach Hollywood died, somebody was going to score 24 points to win a game, or someone was going to do something or however it happened, 24 (Hollywood’s jersey number) was going to be an important number. And I had forgotten about that.
Godett: We had Trey Moses on postgame, and we usually don’t have players on postgame, but Trey walked by, and I didn’t invite him on the air or anything, Trey was just there and picked up the headset. So we had Trey on. And he talked about Zach and how Zach was on his mind. The things you say in situations like that, like, ‘This is for him and he helped us do this.’ And that’s when I looked at the box score and thought, ‘Holy (cow), Tayler had 24 points.’ And here’s (Persons), the guy with tattoos on his arm for Zach Hollywood and the bucket that won the game was points 22, 23 and 24. That was the moment (after the game) that was coolest for me. It was a big win for a lot of reasons and not all of them were basketball-related.
Grunkemeyer: What was fun for me – and it’s what I love about being at a mid-major – is when you get to knock off one of the big guys, the pride of anyone that is associated or affiliated with Ball State comes out. It’s being able to walk around town for a little while and have people really proud that little Ball State from Muncie was able to go knock off big bad Notre Dame. There’s just a good feeling about that, because people like to root for the underdog. That was certainly us that night. The excitement from fans and the alumni was the thing I was most happy about.
Eha: The next day, I flew to Atlanta and was wearing Ball State stuff. Literally going through the airport in Atlanta, I probably had five or six people that said something to the effect of, ‘Saw what you guys did last night!’ Just what that did and elevated our school, it was incredible.
Whitford: Everywhere I went for the next month, everybody talked about the game. I certainly knew it was a big win, but what stood out to me was because of (Notre Dame’s) brand and who they are, how much a reaction I got everywhere I went. In the grocery store, people couldn’t get enough and kept coming up to talk about the game.
V. The epilogue
This past July, James Whitford was reunited with Mike Brey at an AAU tournament. It was the first and only time he has seen the Notre Dame coach since the game. That meeting underscored a lesson for Whitford and Grunkemeyer about how to treat other people in the midst of defeat.
As Brey was peppered with questions after the game about what is wrong with the No. 9 team in the country, he didn’t make excuses. Instead, he kept circling back and complimenting Ball State.
“It’s a neat story. In-state kids. They’re good. They’re good,” Brey said then. “I’ll be following them, and I’ll be rooting for them, because we need them to win, right? We need them to be good, and I think they’re going to be very good.”
Whitford: The coolest part for me, by far, was Mike Brey’s postgame press conference. It was really meaningful for me. I told him this summer when I saw him that I thought he showed tremendous class and grace in what was clearly a disappointing and difficult loss and had a huge impact on their year. And yet, I thought the way he handled it allowed our fans to enjoy it more. He was very complimentary of our program and I thought he showed incredible dignity, grace and class. I remember saying, ‘Note to self: If that happens in reverse, make sure I take a lesson from him.’ He didn’t take away from our deal at all. He didn’t blame his players at all. He was just really graceful in the way he handled it.
Grunkemeyer: I got an email the next morning from Rod Balanis, Notre Dame’s associate head coach. It was just, ‘Hey, you guys earned the win, you kicked our butt tonight, congratulations and good luck rest of the way.’ I have the utmost respect for their program because of the way treated us that night. It was the classiest place I’ve been to in 20 years of college basketball, from the time we entered the arena to when we exited the arena. It made me think really highly of them.
Persons, meanwhile, went on to hit three game-winning 3-pointers that season. NCAA.com nicknamed him “Dr. Dagger.” He was named All-MAC Second Team. Moses had another good season, earning All-MAC Third Team honors. And yet both felt like there was something missing. It underscored that true happiness isn’t in a box score or a win.
Persons and Moses each traveled out of the country this summer through Athletes in Action, a Christian ministry for athletes to help them grow in their sport and spiritually. Persons dropped about 30 pounds as he trained for a trip to Brazil. Moses played with a team that went to New Zealand. Both returned in the right frame of mind to lead Ball State as seniors in 2018-19. And both are looking forward to chasing pro careers this summer.
Persons: I won’t lie, I was in that (depressed) state all last year. Basketball was the one thing that I could use to get away from it. That’s why when I hit that shot (against Notre Dame) and everyone is showing you love, it’s like, damn, it didn’t make me feel any better about myself or what I was going through. It was just kind of hard to talk about it. Everyone is like, I would love to be him right now. But you wouldn’t have wanted to be me at that point, with how tough it was for me. Once I got out of it, it was weird. It was like I had a weight lifted off my shoulders.
Moses: It was one of those things where it really shows you the impact God makes on people. Everything happens for a reason. For both of us, we were able to be leaders on a different team and then able to come back here and bring what we learned. And our relationship with the Lord, being able to help each other in that, it was just a great summer for both of us.
Persons: I feel so much better. I’m at peace with myself and my life. I’m in control, but I know God has a plan for me, no matter what it is. That’s how I live now.
And as for the 2017-18 season, well, it didn’t end the way Ball State wanted as it bowed out in the MAC quarterfinals. Perhaps one day, Whitford will get that Gatorade shower that he didn’t get at Notre Dame.
Ryan O’Gara covers Ball State and East Central Indiana high schools at the Star Press. Contact him at (765) 213-5829, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RyanOGara.