Cleveland State used a thoroughly-dominant second half performance – paced by Destiny Leo’s 24 points – to turn a three-point intermission lead into an 81-54 rout of East Tennessee State on Tuesday night at the Wolstein Center.
Things couldn’t have started any better for the Vikings, with Leo burying three-pointers on three of CSU’s first five possessions to serve as an opening act for a career high in points, while giving her team an early 9-2 lead.
“I’m pretty sure that all of those threes were in transition, and we’ve been preaching to get the ball out in transition and get some good shots, so I think that’s what we did at the beginning of the game,” Leo explained.
“We wanted to get her involved, and sometimes that works out, and sometimes it doesn’t,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier explained. “It did tonight.”
From there, the Vikings managed to keep the Bucs at arm’s length through most of the first half, though a disastrous second quarter where a Leo three represented Cleveland State’s only scoring through the first 5:49 allowed ETSU back into the game. A pair of Amaya Adams free throws with 2:58 remaining briefly gave the Bucs their only lead of the game, though Nadia Dumas quickly answered and CSU ultimately led by three at the break.
“We’re a little disappointed with how that second quarter went,” Kielsmeier said. “The game sometimes can go against you so easily in just a small way. It wasn’t like we were making big mistakes, but they really got on us transition-wise.”
“We made some mistakes on reads in our offensive transition that got fixed in the second [half], but I don’t think we were necessarily playing that bad. We were just making plays that just weren’t enough to get the stop or to finish the play on the offensive end.”
Then, as if flipping a switch, things came together in that way coaches dream out of the locker room. Leo was fouled shooting a three on the Vikings’ second possession of the third quarter and made each free throw, sparking a 12-4 run that made the score 44-33 and included a triple from Brittni Moore and a smooth jumper from Isabelle Gradwell.
From there, ETSU was never again closer than eight. The visiting squad, in Simon Harris’ first game behind the bench and led by Damiah Griffin’s 13 points, did just enough to keep things interesting through most of the third quarter. However, a Moore three followed by her steal and an eventual Gradwell basket unofficially ended the affair as a competitive contest with 7:00 to play.
“That second half was one of the best halves of basketball that I’ve seen in quite some time,” Kielsmeier said. “Our transition really fired, and our defense was extending out into people and passing lanes in order to get our transition game going.”
“We just controlled the game.”
“That’s how we practice,” Dumas said. “We practice getting 50-50 balls, if we see the ball on the floor, we’re going after it. So we just transfer what we do in practice into the games.”
Behind Leo, the Vikings received a balanced effort led by a combination of veterans and newcomers. Super senior Dumas came on late to chip in her typically-gritty ten points and five rebounds and classmate Gradwell had 11 points and eight rebounds (while helping CSU to a +30 rating while she was on the floor). Meanwhile UT Martin transfer Moore added 13 points and four steals and former Radford Highlander Amele Ngwafang drew frequent trips to the free throw line on the way to eight points and five rebounds.
“[The newcomers] are buying right into it,” Dumas said of the program’s culture. “I think everyone wants to know what it takes to be in a championship program. Everyone wants to win, everyone wants the championship. So knowing what we did last year, they just followed right along.”
“Whether you’re playing 40 minutes or playing two minutes, you’re always going to stay positive. That’s just what we do in our program.”
Up next, Cleveland State will play two more non-conference games this weekend, first hosting St. Bonaventure on Saturday, followed by Division II’s Quincy on Sunday. Leo and her teammates said they were ready to get back to work.
“We’ve got two games this weekend, it was nice to get this first win under our belt, but we’ve got some preparing to do for this weekend,” she said.