CLEVELAND -- Bowling Green's experience and senior leadership just couldn't be beat.
Ali Mann scored 20 points and the Falcons (No. 18 ESPN/USA Today; No. 20 AP)showed why they have dominated the Mid-American Conference for three seasons.
They earned a third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament with a convincing 67-53 win over Ball State in the MAC tournament championship on Saturday.
The banged-up Falcons, down to nine players, stifled the Cardinals early and finally clicked on offense for the first time this March after struggling their first two rounds.
"When everybody counted us out with our depth and our adversity we had undergone with illness and injuries, this team just kept believing in their abilities," coach Curt Miller said.
Bowling Green (29-3) became the third team to win three straight MAC tourneys -- the Falcons did it in 1987-90 and Toledo in 1995-97. The win also broke a MAC single-season record that they set last year.
Kate Achter held onto the ball for the final seconds, then hurled it skyward and ran to midcourt to celebrate with her teammates. The Falcons have lost just once in the conference the last two seasons -- Feb. 24 against Ohio -- winning 43 of 44.
Mann shot 8-for-13 with five rebounds and the senior displayed why she was the MAC co-player of the year, leading the offensive attack as the Falcons shot 61 percent.
"There's not one player on that team who is the MVP," Ball State senior Kelsey Corbin said. "If Ali's not doing it one game, Kate is."
Ball State (24-6) lost its third finals appearance and will have to hope for an at-large bid to play in its first NCAA tournament.
"We really felt like we had the opportunity to do something special," Ball State coach Tracy Roller said. "They were the better team. We could never get over the hump."
Porchia Green and Corbin led with 15 points each for the Cardinals, who fell to 0-5 against Bowling Green in the MAC tourney.
The Falcons were already without two players lost to season-ending knee injuries and a third who left for undisclosed reasons. When senior center Liz Honegger was hobbled by an ankle sprain in the semifinal Friday, Miller portrayed his team as the underdogs.
"I don't think I've believed a word this guy has said in four years," said Mann, smiling at her coach seated next to her. "Just kidding.
"With Liz going down with her ankle that's a huge blow to us. In a way, we were the underdog. Mentally, that was a good way to prepare for this game."
Honegger played just 14 minutes and didn't score, but it didn't matter with the Falcons establishing control from the start.
"They came out and they looked like the veteran team that they are," Corbin said.
Ball State, which shot 48 percent in the semifinal, opened shooting 1-for-11 with 10 turnovers and trailed 18-9 when Green hit a 3-pointer with 6:11 to go in the first half.
Bowling Green went up 31-18 at halftime, led by senior Amber Flynn's eight points, and never was threatened again.
Achter, her forehead bandaged, relentlessly drove to the hoop in the second half, extending the lead to 51-30 with under 12 minutes left. She finished with 18 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Ball State never gave up but couldn't cut into Bowling Green's lead enough to make it close.
Freshman Audrey McDonald crashed to the floor near the scorer's table trying to steal an inbound pass and was down for several minutes before the team's staff helped her to the bench. McDonald was being examined for a possible concussion, Roller said.
The Falcons improved to 9-1 in MAC championship games. They will look to get past the first round of the NCAA Tournament after losing to Kansas State and UCLA the last two seasons.
After being star-struck the first time and overmatched by the Bruins the second, Achter believes their experience will help them go farther.
"I don't want to hear another excuse," she said. "I want to take the next step."