The Cleveland State women’s team finished a stretch of seven games in eight on the road with a split of visits to Chicago and Indianapolis over the weekend. The Vikings are now 13-4 overall and 8-3 in the Horizon League headed into a critical February slate.
Cleveland State 54 at UIC 45
In the week’s opening game, the Vikings managed to deliver floundering UIC yet another loss, as the Flames trudge through their Horizon League farewell season on the way to the Missouri Valley Conference in 2022-23.
Leaving Chicago’s Credit Union 1 Arena with a win was probably a bit tougher than it should have been against a team that is just 2-15 overall and 1-11 in the conference though, as both teams struggled for long stretches of the game. CSU, however, managed to build an uneasy lead early and maintain it for the entire evening.
Destiny Leo led the way for the victorious side with 17 points and four assists, but she was the only green-clad player in double digits and without counting her 5-for-10 line from the floor, the remaining Vikings shot just 30.6 percent. Brittni Moore and Gabriella Smith offered eight and seven points respectively, with Moore also pulling down a team-high 11 rebounds, though the duo required 24 shot attempts to produce those 15 points.
Fortunately for the Vikings, UIC was even worse, as the Flames shot just 2-for-14 from three, part of a 31.1 percent effort overall. Jaida McCloud led the way for the Flames with 12 points and 13 rebounds, while Leah Yarbrough (eight points, three blocks) and Ky Dempsey-Toney (six points) also contributed to a stout inside game that was usually available when UIC needed a bucket or a stop.
Determining where a low-scoring game is the result of bad offense, great defense, or both, is generally a matter of perspective and interpretation, but in CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier’s mind, it was mostly the former.
“I thought our offensive movement and flow in the half-court set wasn’t nearly as good as what it was [during the teams’ previous meeting in Cleveland on November 20th],” he said. “There’s things that you can say we did better on Thursday for sure, but there’s other things that are still stagnant.”
Two Cleveland State runs likely made the difference in the contest. After McCloud pulled the score within 30-28 with 8:57 to go in the third quarter, the Flames did not score for the next five minutes of game time, allowing the Vikings to puff things up to 37-28 thanks to buckets by Leo and Isabelle Gradwell, along with a three-pointer by Smith.
Then, by the early stages of the fourth quarter UIC managed to creep within three, but an immediate Leo triple kicked off an 11-0 run that lasted until just 94 seconds remained. A major key to the run was Cleveland State’s effectiveness protecting the ball against the Flames’ pressure. In the teams’ previous contest this season, the Vikings saw a 20-point fourth quarter lead reduced to seven at one point, thanks largely to turnovers.
On Thursday, however, the issue was largely corrected as CSU turned the ball over an acceptable 18 times (six times in the first quarter) while salting away the win.
Cleveland State 64 at IUPUI 82
Sometimes, when a game ends in a blowout, people will say things like “it was over from the opening tip.”
It’s usually meant as hyperbole, but it may not have been on Saturday in The Jungle.
Jaguars superstar Macee Williams gave her team possession to start the game, and shortly after that, teammate Rachel Kent connected on a corner three to give IUPUI a 3-0 lead. The 13 seconds it took to finish that opening play represented the only chunk of time that the Jags weren’t ahead in the game.
Kent, who finished with 18 points entirely on a 6-for-9 clip from behind the arc, was far from finished. Before six minutes had elapsed in the game, the Saint Louis transfer had connected on four of her threes, while Destiny Perkins – who returned from a three-week injury during IUPUI’s win over Purdue Fort Wayne two days prior – added a pair of first-quarter triples on the way to a 12-point effort.
“We have to start games better,” Kielsmeier said. “We have not been starting well consistently, that’s been the consistent thing with us. We have to overcome that almost every night.”
By the end of the opening ten minutes IUPUI led 24-10, and the Jags’ scorching shooting clips (59.6 percent from the floor, 56.5 from three for the game) fueled by elite ball movement (23 assists on 31 made field goals) all but guaranteed that the margin would remain well-fed throughout.
Once Cleveland State’s zone was appropriately stretched out, Williams went to work down low. The three-time Horizon League player of the year scored 21 points and hauled down 16 rebounds in total, with 11 of the points coming during the second quarter on the way to a 20-point Jags lead at the half that the home side maintained over the final 20 minutes.
“They’re just extremely well coached and they execute great,” Kielsmeier said. “And when we make mistakes, they exploit it. And some of the mistakes we’re making against some other teams aren’t getting exploited like this, and I think this is really going to get our players’ attention.”
Bright spots on the CSU side included Deja Williams, whose nine-point burst in just over two late-third-quarter minutes represented one of the visitors’ only serious comeback pushes. She finished with 12 points, as did Izzy Geraci, who starred in extended second half action. Leo finished with a team-high 16 points, though she was just 1-for-6 from the floor in the second half after a strong start. Amele Ngwafang showed some potential to offer Macee Williams a bit more defensive resistance than she generally met on Saturday, should the teams meet during the conference tournament.
There remain, however, far more questions than answers for the Vikings, who saw their four-game winning streak snapped against IUPUI. Another streak, however, continued: the Jags have beaten Cleveland State ten straight times (excluding November’s forfeit result), with every single one of those games decided by double digits (six of them, in fact, featured margins of 20-plus points, with Saturday’s game sneaking outside of that cut through the back door).
The good news begins with the fact that CSU will spend most of the rest of the regular season at home, six of the final eight games in all. Details such as those may prove crucial as the squad attempts to secure a crucial top-four standings finish that would guarantee a first-round bye in the league playoffs, as well as a home game in the quarterfinal round. Wright State (Thursday) and Northern Kentucky (Saturday) will visit the Wolstein Center to kick off the home stretch.
“We have to be better, that’s the end of the story, and I think that what we really can learn is that maybe we thought we were doing enough before, but now we know we’re not,” Kielsmeier said, with an eye on his team’s final regular season month. “I think as a staff, we have a pretty good idea of that, but sometimes you have to wake your kids up. Hopefully this is a good wake-up call for all of us.”
“On days like this, you’ve gotta own it. Don’t make excuses for it, don’t run from it. We got beat by a really good basketball team today, in part because we’re not good enough every single day. We’ve gotta be better.”