On Wednesday evening, the Cleveland State women’s team defeated Division II’s Ursuline College by a 73-47 count in the Vikings’ sole exhibition contest of the 2021-22 preseason. In the spirit of the affair being, you know, a game that doesn’t actually count, let’s focus things on key takeaways with implications that will continue through CSU’s official opener next Tuesday against East Tennessee State.
1. This was fun. At the risk of joining the bevy of writers rapidly turning the “I’m never taking this for granted again” column into a cliché, I’m never taking this for granted again. While there’s plenty to be said about the experience of traveling to the game, working in the ways media was meant to work, and enjoying what you love without any intermediaries between it and your eyes (and others have done just that), a lot of what was missed during the spectator-free 2020-21 season was nuance, atmosphere, and context.
When I say “atmosphere,” I don’t really mean it in the sense most assume because other than the very select few, women’s basketball unfortunately doesn’t draw gigantic crowds. However, there are advantages to that reality. Few people in a packed 15,000-seat arena, for example, can hear the communication on the floor or on the bench, whether it’s something as routine as calling out a switch or a referee dispute like the one CSU coach Chris Kielsmeier took on when a play that initially appeared to end with Nadia Dumas headed to the line after being fouled while making a basket was instead ruled a jump ball. Late in the game, Destiny Leo shot a free through and immediately said “that’s off.” The ball disagreed, however, dropping through after two caroms off of the iron.
Those moments, while small, are also educational and sometimes entertaining, and they make me better at what I do. ESPN+ is amazing, but it has yet to capture the totality of the experience of witnessing a basketball game.
2. It was an exhibition game. Okay, that statement may be a bit broad and obvious, but that doesn’t make it any less true. While the Vikings certainly looked the part of a Horizon League contender in flashes, Kielsmeier generally seemed less than pleased with things, turning even the fluffy “talk about how well you did” questions into musings on the team’s need to develop consistency, like “Our players need to understand the importance of preparation, and the importance of focus and really being locked in regardless of who the opponent is. At the end of the day, it’s still just basketball. Just go out and play.”
“I think some of our offenses are further ahead, we’ve really layered up our system this year, there’s a lot more to what we’re doing offensively,” he added, when asked to grade the offense. “At times it looks like some offenses are further along than the other ones. If it was a real game down the stretch, I probably would’ve called it differently, but I wanted to work on things, throw some different lineups and rotations out there than what I probably would do if it was a real game. You’re just trying to learn a lot about your basketball team.”
Leo handled the assessment of the defensive side of the ball: “We need to pressure the ball more. They got to the basket underneath us well, they were dumping down. I think it all comes down to keeping that somebody in front of you.”
One of the ironic luxuries of playing in a one-bid league is that there’s more latitude to develop through the non-conference schedule, as opposed to a Big Ten team fighting for that seventh at-large spot, so look for the Vikings to continue to fine tune things as the regular season gets underway next week.
3. Amele Ngwafang is the real deal. I spent a fair amount of oxygen this preseason hyping Ngwafang, a Radford transfer, and in my first look at her playing live basketball, she didn’t let me down. Really, she was the engine behind the Vikings taking what was a close game in the second quarter and pushing the gap to 13 before ultimately leading by ten at the half. In the space of a couple minutes, she made several momentum plays, including taking a charge, blocking a shot, grabbing a steal and, of course, coming down with a couple boards. She then began the second half with a bucket and a foul (though she missed the free throw) and by forcing a jump ball with the possession arrow in CSU’s favor.
After pointing out that the Vikings finally generated some separation from Ursuline based on high points from their defense (which he considered inconsistent during the game as a whole), Kielsmeier added this review of Ngwafang: “She’s a young player in this system, so there are going to be ups and downs trying to figure out what she’s doing out there. But Mel’s instant energy, and she needs to understand that she has the capability to really affect our program emotionally every day.”
4. The other newcomers showed plenty of reasons to make you believe that they’ll be good fits in the program, though where exactly that fit is remains an open question. Whether it was Deja Williams as an intense floor leader, the smoothness of Gabriella Smith, or Brittni Moore doing a little of everything, it seems like Kielsmeier has found a portal class that brings a lot to the table that you’d want to see on his, or any, basketball team.
But while the talent is apparent, their specific roles remain in flux.
“They’re trying to find their way in this system, and trying to settle in to where they can make plays and do what they do really well,” Kielsmeier said. “The coaching staff is still trying to figure that out as well. When you coach a kid for a few months, you don’t know their game great yet, you don’t understand everything about what they do well.”
“So both sides are trying to figure out their strengths and put them in a position to make plays. But they’re really good basketball players and can score.”
One other complication comes from the fact that CSU used just nine players during the contest, thanks to a bevy of injuries that kept several key names from 2020-21 out of the lineup. Undoubtedly, as some of those banged up heal and rejoin the rotation, players might find themselves doing something a little bit different that what they were asked against Ursuline.
5. Destiny Leo is ready for her star turn. It’s hard to call it much of a twist, but with one of the offseason’s big open questions being “who is going to replace Mariah White,” the fact that the answer ended up being Leo generated at least a little bit of surprise. At the very least, it certainly stunned the writer with The News-Herald who came into the media workroom after the game amazed that she handled the ball so much after virtually never doing so when he covered her in high school at Eastlake North.
Leo put it a bit more bluntly: “No I’ve never done that before in my life.”
Yet there she was, playing point and taking on what has to be considered a more dribble-drive intensive role than was seen from her last year. The change in direction had a bit of a bumpy start, but by the second quarter she was penetrating and finding open shooters, and finishing plenty herself, just as White did during her Viking career.
“She’s a playmaker,” Kielsmeier explained. “She understands that no matter what we ask of her, she’s going to go out and make plays. She’s learning and growing as a player. Playmakers make plays, regardless of what you’re asking them to do. And Destiny Leo is a playmaker.”
“I think we still have a lot of people that can take charge,” Leo said, hedging a bit. “I’ve been trying to adjust to playing more of a point guard role, but I think we have a lot of girls that can take charge and put us together, but I think I need to take more pride in that.”