“Fortunate” Vikings top UIC to sweep unusual conference opening week

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Cleveland State 74, UIC 64

Chris Kielsmeier postgame

In most of the objective ways, Saturday evening’s victory was an ugly one for the Vikings (5-0, 2-0 Horizon League), despite the fact that CSU never trailed UIC (0-3, 0-2 HL) after the first minute of the second quarter and was generally up by double digits at most points, even pushing the lead as high as 20 midway through the fourth quarter.

The culprit for the ugliest pretty win ever: Tasha Pointer’s full-court press, which the Flames coach unleashed in the second half, confounding the Vikings into many of their 30 turnovers. There were plenty in the standard double-team, hand-in-a-passing-lane forms, but really, they came in all varieties: five and ten-second violations, passes to nobody, and, when things got particularly desperate, court-length heaves that sailed past the target and out of the back of the end zon…err baseline.

Over the second half of the fourth quarter, the Flames cashed in enough of the miscues to trim that 20-point lead down to nine, and were a couple missed shots from drawing even closer.

“Tonight we were fortunate to get the win, it exposed a lot of things that we’ve got to get better with this week, and we’ll go to work on that,” Cleveland State coach Chris Kielsmeier said.

“I’ve got to get better, I’ve got to coach them better, I’ve got to figure some things out. That’s the challenge of the game, you just love constantly being challenged, and that’s what the game does to you.”

For Cleveland State, salvation both in the hairy late moments and throughout the game rested in some of the familiar places – Destiny Leo put up 22 points on 50 percent shooting, to name one – but also some previously unexplored to this point in the young season.

Isabella Geraci fell squarely under that latter category. The senior from North Ridgeville, OH, who usually serves as something of a shooting specialist, took a turn in the spotlight on Saturday. Her 28:30 of playing time, second on the Vikings to Leo’s 36:07, began at a point that helped turn back an early UIC rally and finished with a career-best 16 points on 4-for-7 from the floor and 7-for-7 from the free throw line.

“Every player, whether you start or you don’t, it’s basketball, go play,” Kielsmeier said. “When your number’s called, and you’ve got an opportunity to produce, go produce. And [Geraci] did a great job of that tonight.”

Geraci and Leo were both part of a strong CSU shooting effort that helped negate the turnover issues, one that totaled 39.6 percent on field goals and 72.1 percent on free throws. The two of them contributed an outside presence along with effective drives to the hoop that often resulted in trips to the line. Others like Nadia Dumas and Amele Ngwafang, who combined for 16 points and 17 rebounds despite tough matchups from UIC’s interior defense, were beneficiaries of the times CSU managed to break the press.

“When we broke the press, we were able to attack downhill and get to the basket, and made a lot of plays and got to the free throw line a lot,” Kielsmeier said.

“[There really were] two stories to the game. When we were turning it over, it got messy, we were throwing the ball all over the place, we were allowing them to be able to do what they want to do. When we weren’t turning it over, we were making plays, and we made a lot of plays tonight.”

The Flames were paced by Jaida McCloud, who scored a game-high 24 points and added seven rebounds. Kristian Young added 15 points, eight during a first quarter UIC surge that saw the visitors take a four-point lead into the second quarter. UIC’s young inside players, Leah Yarbrough, Ky Dempsey-Toney, and Isabel Gonzalez were also effective but plagued with foul trouble (Yarbrough, in fact, committed fouls on CSU’s first two possessions of the contest).

“We’re trying to get better at closing the high post, we really focused on that heavy this week, and we felt like we’d made a significant stride with it, and I think that the tape’s going to show that we really didn’t,” Kielsmeier said of the source of much of the Flames’ offense.

“They’ve got a great young team, and certainly they’re going to get a lot better throughout the year.”

For now though, the Vikings and their head coach are headed back to the film room and the practice gym.

“It exposed a lot of things that we need to get better with, and it’s great to be able to [work on] that after a win,” he said.

Cleveland State 2, IUPUI 0

Cleveland State’s Horizon League opener, set for Thursday against league favorite IUPUI, wound up as a huge result for the Vikings, but not in the way Kielsmeier would have preferred. Instead of an on-court statement, CSU had to settle for a forfeit win after COVID spread through the Jaguars’ Tier 1 personnel.

“You don’t [give it much thought], it’s life,” he said. “Everything is so unusual right now, you don’t really process it. It’s the rules, that was determined by somebody else, and so we just roll with it.”

Nevertheless, for all teams involved in the outbreak (IUPUI was also forced to forfeit their scheduled game at Purdue Fort Wayne on Saturday), there are potentially enormous standings implications down the road. CSU, along with fellow conference 2-0s PFW, Milwaukee, and Youngstown State, are now two games ahead of the squad most consider the class of the league. Additionally, the Vikings and Mastodons now have credit for wins that others near them in the standings will be forced to try to earn through a more difficult route.

Those are concerns for the distant future, however. For now, CSU will return to non-conference play after Thanksgiving with a home contest against LIU on Sunday, November 28th.

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