Vikings finally return to action with improbable win over Milwaukee

Kyle Rechlicz postgame (courtesy of UWM)

On Sunday afternoon, Cleveland State downed Milwaukee 66-57 to improve to 10-3 overall and 5-2 in the Horizon League. The result, CSU’s first victory at UWM’s Klotsche Center since January 19, 2012, dropped the Panthers dropped to 7-10 overall and 6-4 in the conference.

It’s hard to truly do justice to the magnitude of the victory from the Cleveland State side of things, but here’s an attempt.

Despite a 9-3 overall record entering the game, the Vikings last won against a Division I opponent on December 3rd, a clutch 63-52 result on the home court of a very good Northern Kentucky team. CSU collected a forfeit over COVID-stricken Wright State two days later, then ran into their own virus issues, forcing the cancellation of a non-conference game at Akron. Next, the Vikings routed NAIA school Ohio Christian on December 18th (OCU was a last-minute replacement for yet another team hit with COVID, Hofstra).

Things seemed to be headed in the general direction of normal when CSU dropped their final out-of-conference game to a tough Loyola Chicago team ahead of the holiday break, but by New Year’s weekend and a pair of disappointing road losses to Robert Morris and Youngstown State, warning signs had re-emerged when the Vikings were reduced to eight players against the Penguins. Sure enough, CSU went on a second COVID pause a couple days later, taking out scheduled home games against Detroit Mercy and Oakland. One final opponent-fueled cancellation – which the Vikings didn’t learn about until landing in Green Bay ahead of a planned game on Friday – set up the Sunday matchup with the Phoenix’s archrival.

Against that backdrop it was not the least bit surprising that Milwaukee, one of two remaining Horizon League teams that has yet to endure a COVID pause this season, jumped all over the Vikings from the tip, leading 20-10 after ten minutes after the visitors arrived cold from the Wisconsin air, shooting 28.6 percent from the floor during the first quarter. Miquela Santoro led the early charge for the Panthers with nine first quarter points, on her way to 14 for the game. Back-to-back three pointers by Santoro and Sydney Staver gave UWM their first lead just before the media timeout and were part of a 14-0 run spanning just over seven minutes of game time.

“I thought Miquela Santoro was incredibly aggressive in the first half, and she really put us in a really great position there, she was 4-for-8 from the floor,” Milwaukee head coach Kyle Rechlicz said.

If anyone knew what would happen next, they could have made a lot of money on it: Cleveland State scored 14 of the game’s next 18 points to tie things at 24-24 midway through the second quarter. Whether the Vikings found another gear, shook off the rust, or fill in your own cliché, suddenly things were truly clicking for the first time since the team’s 9-0 start to the season.

Arguably, the Vikings quietly began to right the ship late in the first quarter when a Brittni Moore three-point play re-energized the Vikings roster, one of several jolts the UT Martin transfer offered throughout the afternoon on effort plays. Moore ultimately finished just shy of a double-double with 11 points and nine rebounds in a tidy 22:49 off the bench.

Grit, as it sometimes does, opened up things for the CSU shooters. After a 1-for-7 start from three-point range, Deja Williams and Gabby Smith both connected from deep during the second quarter run (beginning a 7-for-18 finish to the contest from deep), the latter serving as the tying blow.

“It would’ve been nice if they had one of those games where they weren’t [shooting the ball well from three-point range], because obviously we were relying on that factor. We made some very serious mistakes to give them some of those open threes,” Rechlicz said.

“Gabby Smith, she takes five threes a game, so we were expecting her to take those, but she’s shooting 21 percent and goes 3-for-8. Deja goes 2-for-5. Players that haven’t been hitting start hitting shots.”

While Panthers superstar Megan Walstad scored four of the game’s next five points to help her squad to a 30-25 halftime lead, the trendline of the game had pivoted and CSU proved it by outscoring Milwaukee 23-11 during a decisive third quarter.

Smith opened the frame with another triple before Destiny Leo finally got involved. The Lake County product, who had been held off the scoreboard for the first 21 minutes of the game, fired home seven points during the quarter, the first four on free throws.

The second pair of tosses came after a flagrant foul by Santoro in transition and a scary moment as Leo remained down for a bit, followed by a technical foul to presumed redshirt Faith Burch for leaving the bench to help Leo up, but that was the closest approximation of drama that the second half had to offer once CSU wrapped up runs of 9-0 and 13-2 late in the third to generate a comfortable amount of separation the rest of the way.

“I thought we did an excellent job on number 2, Destiny Leo, in the first half, and in the second half she scores 12 points because we weren’t communicating on our switches, we weren’t…it’s almost like we weren’t hitting our shots, so we threw ourselves a little pity party and stopped defending,” Rechlicz lamented.

“Cleveland State’s a very good team, I give a lot of credit to their coach, he brought in some really good transfers. He’s putting people in the right positions, Destiny Leo has really stepped up for them, they’re a great team.”

Four Vikings finished in double figures, including Moore, Smith (15), Leo (12) and Nadia Dumas (10), while Leo’s eight rebounds were second on the team to Moore. Walstad paced the home side with 18 points and ten rebounds.

Up next the Vikings, like all Horizon League teams, will play their travel partner twice this week. In CSU’s case, that opponent is a struggling Purdue Fort Wayne team and an opportunity to string together another winning streak as part of a continuing effort to prove Rechlicz right. The Mastodons are scheduled to visit the Wolstein Center on Thursday, followed by a return engagement in Fort Wayne on Saturday.

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