Over the weekend, Cleveland State maintained its perfect mark to start the 2021-22 season, climbing to 3-0 with wins over St. Bonaventure on Saturday, and Division II squad Quincy on Sunday.
Cleveland State 58, St. Bonaventure 49
Against the Bonnies, CSU had to prove its ability to win a game ugly. Leading scorer Destiny Leo was held to just one shot from the floor and two points in the opening two quarters, while the rest of the offense generally looked out of sync. While most of the underlying numbers fell under “not great, but not a disaster” (37 percent shooting, eight turnovers, two blocks against), the Vikings were 0-for-7 from three and 6-for-12 from the line.
“We need to prepare better, and we need to be ready to play better at the start of games,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “It’s early in the season, so everyone’s trying to figure out what exactly that means, when I just said that.”
“We need to be ready to go at a higher level. We obviously struggled offensively because we had a hard time hitting shots.”
That might not sound like a coach whose team led by five at the break, yet the Vikings did, by a 26-21 count thanks to a suffocating defense spearheaded by Nadia Dumas, who only scored four points, but had nine rebounds (eight in the opening 20 minutes) and four blocks for the game, in addition to a bevy of intangibles.
“That’s Nadi,” Kielsmeier explained. “We talk about it a lot, she’s just the player that’s going to do everything that she can to win a game. She’s going to take a charge, she’s going to find a way to get rebounds even though she’s rebounding against people that are bigger than her, she’s just going to find a way to be successful out there.”
Things started clicking a little better in the second half where, other than a too-late Bonnies push, Cleveland State was never seriously threatened, pushing the lead close to 20 at moments before settling for an eight-point victory. The shots started falling in the later going, particularly for Leo, who came out of nowhere to finish with a game-high 20 points. Gabriella Smith also starred, scoring 16 points, a few of those coming on coast-to-coast efforts after one of her four rebounds.
“Gabi’s a bucket maker, she’s a playmaker,” Kielsmeier said. “We as a staff feel like she’s kind of pressed trying to find her way within this system, and we talked about going into this game, ‘just let the game come to you.’”
“She’s got a lot of playmaking ability, and she showed that tonight.”
While a win against an A-10 opponent that already has a win over a Horizon League rival this season (Robert Morris on November 9th) might seem like an unqualified success regardless of aesthetics, it remained something less than that for Kielsmeier, who was sparing with his praise but did concede that there was at least one positive to be drawn from the evening.
“We showed we can win a game a different way than how we normally win,” he said.
Cleveland State 93, Quincy 53
A unique opportunity that pitted Kielsmeier against Kielsmeier presented itself on Sunday when Division II’s Quincy University – where Chris Kielsmeier’s brother Kelly serves as associate head coach – happened to be in the Cleveland area to play at Ursuline College. That led to an extra game tacked on to busy weekends for both teams, but any reservations Chris had about playing back to back contests days before his team’s conference opener faded by the time Sunday rolled around.
The two coached together during a successful decade at Wayne State College, but had yet to be on opposite sides following Chris’ departure for Cleveland State.
“I’ve been a head coach for 22 years, and I take great pride in really nothing bothering me on gamedays, you’ve gotta be laser focused, and you’ve gotta be there for your team,” he said. “You expect that kind of focus from [the team], you better be laser sharp.”
“But today affected me. I was pretty emotional before the game. Family is everything to our family, and it was emotional for both of us. It was a special day for our family, for both Kelly and I, and I know it’s something we’ll remember for a long time.”
As for the game itself, the final score belied the fact that Quincy had some successes against the hosts, particularly in the first half. Although the Hawks never led after Gabrielle Burns’ game-opening three was quickly washed out by buckets from Dumas and Leo, QU seemed to have enough of an answer to stay within shouting distance every time the Vikings threatened to pull away. A Beth Matas Martin jumper pulled Quincy within 21-18 two minutes into the second quarter, the final time the Hawks would be within one score.
Still, CSU didn’t truly begin to separate until a 10-4 run to close the second quarter, keyed by Leo and Isabelle Gradwell, made the score 46-32 at the half.
“Quincy really pushed us,” Kielsmeier said. “I thought they attacked us really well, they had a lot of movement on their offense and made it really difficult for us to defend them until we got settled in and got our rotation right.”
“We just didn’t force enough turnovers and get our transition game going. We just need more consistency, that’s really what this comes down to. We’ve played really well in all three of these games. Other times we haven’t played very well.”
The gap between the teams was still an unexpectedly-tight 13 points into the last half of the third quarter when Isabella Geraci knocked down a three pointer, then caused a Hawks turnover seconds later, leading to a Smith layup. Those five points started a 21-0 CSU run bridging the third and fourth quarters to take the score all the way to 76-42, effectively locking in the result and allowing the game starters to spend most of the fourth quarter on the bench.
Despite their abbreviated afternoons, Leo, Dumas and Gradwell once again led the way for the Vikings. Leo dropped 30 points, a new career high, eclipsing the 24 she scored on Tuesday against East Tennessee State. She got there on 10-for-14 shooting from the floor (5-for-8 from three), as well as a perfect 5-for-5 from the line. Dumas contributed a double-double on 12 points, ten rebounds and three blocks, while Gradwell had 12 and five. Amele Ngwafang used a big fourth quarter to nearly end up with her own double-double, ending up on 11 points and eight rebounds. As a team, Cleveland State shot 49.3 percent from the floor.
“I don’t know that the day could’ve gone much better because I think both teams got a lot out of the game, and I think both teams got better,” Kielsmeier said. “They proved that they can beat a quality basketball team at their level and win a lot of games, and that’s important for trying to build their culture.”
Better enough to be ready for Horizon League favorite IUPUI, which rolls into town on Thursday and presents CSU’s next, and biggest to date, challenge?
“I’d say that’s a better question for Wednesday night, when we leave the Wolstein Center [after practice].”