Winning on the road in conference play should never be something that is taken for granted, regardless of the opponent. This year’s Cleveland State Vikings men’s basketball team looked to remain perfect in conference play with a two game road trip against Robert Morris and Youngstown State, two squads that have already dealt with a large amount of adversity so far this season.
While the games against the Colonials and Penguins were certainly not the Vikings’ most complete efforts on both ends of the floor, the veteran led CSU squad was able to survive RMU 78-77, and YSU 86-80 in overtime. Not only are these games examples of winning when you are not at your best, but they also are the type of grind out wins that championship level teams need to figure out how to attain.
Friday night’s tilt with Robert Morris was the first game for the Colonials without leading scorer Rasheem Dunn, who left the program following RMU’s last game. Head coach Andy Toole was tasked with refocusing his team amidst the departure of Dunn, who averaged nearly 13 points per contest in addition to four assists. The Colonials responded to this particular bit of adversity in a major way, as they shot an impressive 54.7% from the field over the course of the game, featuring an interior attack led by big man Kahliel Spear. Spear led all scorers with 24 points as the Vikings had trouble defending the paint.
However, Cleveland State was able to take advantage of inexperience in the backcourt for the Colonials, as they forced 20 Robert Morris turnovers on Friday night. This was a crucial factor in deciding the game, as there were moments when RMU looked as if they were going to build a lead, but timely mistakes caused by Cleveland State’s high pressure defense helped swing the game in the Vikings’ favor.
Each of the five members of CSU’s starting unit also recorded a steal in the contest, which shows their versatility and anticipation on the defensive end. Another key to this victory for Cleveland State was their free throw shooting. The Vikes shot an impressive 26/31 as a team, as key conversions at the line in crunch time was also a major factor. While the charity stripe was kind to CSU in Friday’s victory, the failure to convert on bonus attempts nearly cost the green and white the game on Sunday against Youngstown State.
The YSU Penguins have had to deal with multiple injuries this year, however none might be as impactful as senior leader Garrett Covington, who only appeared in three games before going down. YSU was led by guard Shemar Rathan-Mayes, who turned in a career best scoring day with 21 points. However, it was not enough to top D’Moi Hodge, who tied a season high with 31 points, and the Vikings.
Sunday’s affair was a tail of two halves, as Cleveland State came out extremely lethargic on both ends of the floor. Only one Viking registered more than four points in the first half, as Deshon Parker had nine at the break. CSU also had 11 turnovers in Sunday’s first half, as it was the first time in multiple games that the Vikings were searching for points any way they could obtain them.
The free throw line was a problem all day for Cleveland State, and had it not been, the game most likely would have been decided in regulation. The Vikings shot 19-32 from the line, which is under 60%. Despite the lackluster performance from the free throw line, Cleveland State was able to hang on behind the performances of Hodge and Deante Johnson in the second half.
Hodge specifically caught fire in the second half and overtime session as he scored 27 of his 31 points in the final 25 minutes of game action. While Hodge helped carry the team offensively, Johnson turned into the defensive anchor he is capable of being in the second half against the Penguins. The play that sticks out the most from Johnson however was the final play of regulation, where it looked as if YSU was going to have an easy attempt to win the game from down low, but Johnson did what he does best, come out of nowhere to contest a shot at the rim without fouling. The layup attempt went awry as a result of Johnson’s long arms and verticality.
Johnson’s interior defense will be an important aspect of their defensive attack in their upcoming game against the Oakland Golden Grizzlies; the two lone remaining undefeated teams in league play. Jalen Moore loves to take the ball to the basket as both a scorer and passer, so the Vikings must be able to play with their head on a swivel defensively. The between CSU and Oakland is scheduled for Thursday at 7:00pm in Cleveland.