Cleveland State struggled in its return to Horizon League play over the weekend, dropping road decisions to defensive-minded and hot-shooting Robert Morris and Youngstown State teams to fall to 9-3 overall, and 4-2 in conference play.
Cleveland State 55, Robert Morris 63
Robert Morris, despite coming off of a COVID pause and a holiday break that conspired to keep the Colonials out of action for nearly three weeks, nevertheless topped the Vikings on Thursday in Moon Township, PA. RMU climbed to 4-6 overall (2-3 Horizon League) with the victory.
Upset losses are one thing, but just as concerning for CSU coach Chris Kielsmeier and his team is the fact that RMU came up with what could possibly be the definitive textbook on how to play against the Vikings.
Offensively, the Colonials – which came into the contest 329th nationally in scoring offense at 53.3 points per game – found a spark through Esther Castedo, who finished with a team-high 18 points, including 7-for-11 from the floor and 3-for-6 from three-point range. Alejandra Mastral added 12 points entirely on a 4-for-7 effort from behind the arc, as the two zone busters seemed to have a body blow triple in their pocket every time Cleveland State pushed back. Natalie Villaflor, in just 11 minutes of work, chipped in nine points on 4-for-5 shooting.
Perhaps as important to the winning effort as RMU’s strong shooting was their ball protection. The Colonials committed just 14 turnovers against a ball-hawking Cleveland State defense, preventing the Vikings from running the floor and keeping them bottled up in the half court for most of the evening. The Vikings managed just nine points off of Robert Morris turnovers.
The other side of the court saw the Colonials play Destiny Leo and CSU’s shooters aggressively on the perimeter, suffocating the Vikings to just 2-for-19 from three and 34 percent overall from the floor. RMU’s Sol Castro ensured things weren’t much easier in the paint, sending a message by emphatically turning away several Amele Ngwafang drives early in the game, and frequently denying the ball on the harried guards’ attempts to find Nadia Dumas underneath. Castro finished with a well-balanced six points, six rebounds, three assists, and two blocks.
Even through those developments, Cleveland State managed to score the first seven points of the third quarter to turn a 33-26 halftime deficit into a 33-all tie on a Leo jumper just over two minutes into the third quarter. But just when it looked like the Vikings might right the ship and find a way to struggle to an ugly win, the bottom completely fell out.
Three pointers by Mastral and Castedo within the next couple minutes quickly undid the comeback, while the Vikings only offered missed threes, turnovers, and offensive fouls in reply. Ten game minutes after the score was tied, RMU led 48-35 and had essentially won the game, despite a CSU run that made things semi-interesting late. The drought was reminiscent of Cleveland State’s previous game, against Loyola Chicago on December 21st, when the Vikings went 8:10 of game time between scores, turning an early five-point lead into a ten-point deficit that became most of the final margin.
Leo led the visiting team with 22 points, bolstered by a 12-for-13 effort from the free throw line, while Nadia Dumas had 15 points and seven rebounds. Barbara Zieniewska pulled down a game-high 11 boards for the Vikings.
Cleveland State 59, Youngstown State 70
Several of the same patterns that emerged in the Robert Morris game also conspired against the visitors two days later at Youngstown State. The New Year’s Day contest was billed as a battle for first place between the Vikings and Penguins, which entered play at 4-1 and 5-0 in the Horizon League respectively, but a Cleveland State team with just eight available players (forward Raevyn Harris played against RMU but was out for the YSU game) was unable to develop enough offensive consistency to keep pace.
For Youngstown State, which improved to 12-1 overall, the role of three-point bomber was played by Lexi Wagner. Wagner, a sophomore from Wisconsin, blew up for a 5-for-7 effort from behind the arc and a career-best 19 points.
Four of those threes came in the last 5:39 of the second quarter, transforming what had been a close game at that point – hot-starting Cleveland State led 22-21 before the first of the barrage was dropped – into a 39-30 Penguins lead at the half. The Vikings briefly trimmed their deficit to four points early in the third quarter, but for the most part, the margin held between eight and 15 points for the remainder of the afternoon.
“When she came in she hit the first one, and then she hit a second one, and then, I think I was on the bench, and then she hit a third one, and we all went crazy,” senior guard Megan Callahan said. “Then she hit a fourth one…I think it was like four in a row or something like that.”
“That just brings so much energy, so much positive energy to our team,” she added. “I think at that point, it was like a turning point of okay, we’re getting it done on defense, and now we’re also getting it done on offense. It was just a big spark off the bench for us.”
Wagner, typically a role player for YSU, said that she enjoys starting on the bench because she can get a feel for the game flow before being called on to perform.
“As soon as I get in, I’m thinking I’m going to shoot when I’m open, I’m going to be ready all the time,” she said. “That’s what my teammates tell me, that’s what my coaches tell me, they all have a lot of confidence in me and I have a lot of confidence in them that we’re going to shoot and get the job done.”
“When a team plays zone, you’ve got to be able to knock down outside shots, and she was super aggressive, ready to shoot, was getting it off quick, and that’s what the staff was asking all of the players to do,” YSU coach John Barnes added.
“Lexi is very capable, and tonight was her night.”
Cleveland State was once again paced by Leo, who scored 16 points. However, as with the RMU game, a majority of those points, nine, came from the free throw line. From the floor, the sophomore was held to just 3-for-10, including 1-for-4 from three-point range. Those numbers nearly perfectly mirrored the Vikings’ team-wide stats in those two categories, 30.5 percent and 23.8 percent. Additionally, CSU had just five assists on 18 made field goals.
Though she got help underneath on drives to the basket, YSU’s Mady Aulbach was largely responsible for shadowing Leo throughout the game. Aulbach, two days after holding Purdue Fort Wayne point guard Riley Ott to two points, managed to keep the Vikings’ leading scorer boxed up.
“Mady’s always locked in,” Callahan said. “It’s great having a player like her where she knows she’s going to be guarding the best player and she has to be locked in the whole game, she has to be chasing through screens, she’s going to be in there for about 30 minutes guarding their best player, and that’s not an easy job. That’s amazing to have a player like that and a teammate like that.”
Starting late in the third quarter, a game that could fairly be called a tough, physical matchup between defensive-minded rivals veered in a slightly different direction, with several plays – generally wrestling matches in jump ball situations and hard fouls underneath the hoop – leaving bodies on the floor and frequently drawing jeers from 1,332 raucous fans at the Beeghly Center.
“It was just an extremely physical, hard-fought game, both sides were getting after it and doing the best they can,” Barnes said.
CSU’s Dumas and Gabriella Smith, along with YSU’s Paige Shy, each fouled out of the game, which slogged to a near halt over the final 15 minutes, thanks to an endless parade of timeouts and video reviews. One of the more notable incidents involved Penguins star Lilly Ritz eating an elbow from Ngwafang, as the Vikings forward went up for a fourth quarter shot. After some repairs and swapping out a bloody 35 jersey, Ritz was able to close out her typical 20 point, 14 rebound effort while wearing number 1.
“It was a little scary when Lilly went out,” Barnes said. “It wasn’t just dripping, it was pouring. But Jen, our trainer, got it stopped up and got her back in there.”
“When the game got kind of aggressive, we just huddled and said ‘okay, we’re getting into their heads, but that can’t affect us, we have to stay calm and play our basketball,’” Callahan said.
“It was pretty fun because obviously we kept our heads a lot better than they did,” Wagner added. “It’s just fun to see us kind of get into them and just kind of make them mad, and them get teed up and fouled out, and have them chirping at us, it’s just competitive, it’s fun, it’s the right way to play, honestly.”
Cleveland State and Youngstown State next play each other on Friday, February 11th at the Wolstein Center.