Versatility, post play drives Vikings’ sweep of Northern Kentucky, Wright State

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The Cleveland State women’s team swept home games against Northern Kentucky and Wright State in its latest weekend series to improve to 15-4 overall, while remaining in the thick of the Horizon League title chase with a 10-3 conference record.

Northern Kentucky 56 at Cleveland State 59

Critical plays in the game’s critical moments fueled Cleveland State’s three-point victory over fellow league contender Northern Kentucky (16-5 overall, 10-4 Horizon League) on Saturday afternoon in the Wolstein Center, clinching a Vikings sweep in the season series.

The final three minutes of the contest began with CSU holding a 55-52 lead, at which point Norse guard Ivy Turner misfired while attempting to tie things up from behind the arc. The Vikings’ Deja Williams collected the rebound and fired a stretch pass down the court for Isabelle Gradwell, who converted a transition layup under pressure to push the margin to five.

The visitors quickly answered through freshman Khamari Mitchell-Steen, then made consecutive defensive stops, each of which resulted in fouls drawn by former five-star recruit Lindsey Duvall. However Duvall, a one-time Louisville player and a 2020-21 All-Horizon League selection who is a 78 percent free throw shooter, missed one on each of her trips to the line, allowing CSU to retain a 57-56 advantage.

Chris Kielsmeier called timeout with 41 seconds left to set up the next Vikings possession, but things nevertheless went sideways thanks to another strong defensive sequence by the Norse, culminating in Nadia Dumas traveling while desperately trying to make something happen against a dying shot clock.

“We needed to execute better than that, and that’s on me,” Kielsmeier said. “That play that we went to up one was something we worked on [Saturday] morning, and you gotta work on it more than that. The whole thing was kind of out of whack because of the ball pressure they put on us and extended us out.”

Great players always seem to find a way to make something important happen, even when – or perhaps especially when – something else doesn’t go their way. In Dumas’ case, the time for atonement presented itself immediately on the other end of the court, when the senior nursing major stuffed Emmy Souder’s attempt for an NKU lead. CSU’s Barbara Zieniewska grabbed the loose ball, was fouled, and calmly sank both free throws. 59-56 Vikings, seven seconds to go.

NKU had one final look at forcing overtime from there, but with the defense swarming Duvall and Turner on the perimeter, the best Norse option was Carissa Garcia, whose shot from the corner skipped off the rim.

A matchup that could have been billed as a showdown between all-conference candidates, including Destiny Leo on the Vikings side along with Duvall and Turner for the visitors, didn’t proceed as expected. Leo, in fact, had arguably the worst game of her career with an 0-for-13 line from the field and a single point through a free throw. Duvall and Turner fared somewhat better, with 14 and seven points respectively (along with 12 combined rebounds), but were not the driving force that they typically are for the Norse.

Gabriella Smith, a reliable secondary scorer for CSU who averages just under nine points per game, suffered an apparent leg injury in the opening moments of the game and, including a brief reappearance, was limited to only six minutes of action.

Instead, it was the grinders and trash collectors who got the glory on Saturday while the stars were being held down by two very good defensive teams.

On the NKU side of things, Souder found plenty of space to eat with the defense fixated towards the perimeter, as the senior bucketed a career-high 22 points to go with her more-typical eight rebounds.

For Cleveland State, “grinders and trash collectors” often refers to the tandem of Dumas and Amele Ngwafang, and the pair responded with 14 points each to lead the Vikings, while Ngwafang also grabbed ten rebounds to complete her first double-double at CSU (her eighth overall) and Dumas blocked five shots including her pivotal denial in the final ten seconds.

“You want to be a versatile team that has a lot of depth and can score and make plays on both ends of the floor in a variety of ways, and then ultimately end up winning the game in different ways night in and night out,” Kielsmeier said, while repeating praise of his team’s rebounding efforts against the likes of Souder, Grayson Rose, and other NKU players. “If you’re restricted to winning one way, that’s going to not be there at some point.”

“This team has shown all year that it can win different ways, and tonight was a new one.”

Another one of CSU’s leaders was Williams. The former CSUN player, who was pressed into action earlier than expected by Smith’s injury, ended up on the court for every minute but the first one and contributed 13 points – including two of the game’s most important buckets.

After the Vikings took a one-point edge into the halftime break thanks to Zieniewska, who knocked down a three from the top of the arc off of a feed from Dumas with two seconds remaining, the Norse began the third quarter on an 8-0 run. Williams answered with a three pointer to stop the bleeding at a moment when the contest may have been on the brink of spiraling on the Vikings, then converted a buzzer-beating and-one play as time expired to improbably restore CSU’s lead to its halftime margin at the end of the third quarter.

“Deja’s a player,” Kielsmeier said. “She’s just a straight baller, and she loves the game, and she was ready tonight when we had to have her.”

The Vikings’ defense played an essential role in the swing as well, holding NKU to just two points over a stretch of 9:06 bridging the final two quarters after the Norse advantage peaked at 44-36, facilitating the late heroics.

“You want all of the prep to be done long before those moments get here, but you live for those moments because you’ve gotta be really good in those moments or you’re never going to accomplish something really special,” Kielsmeier observed.

“When that moment comes, you have to be at your best. And we made some mistakes offensively, but boy man, we were lock-down defense and really rebounded well too.”

Wright State 60 at Cleveland State 86

Ngwafang’s career-best 25 points, along with 12 rebounds, led the way as Cleveland State routed Wright State on Monday night.

The Radford transfer’s game was quite extraordinary in a couple ways. She began with an inauspicious 0-for-4 from the floor during the first quarter before recovering to hit eight of her final 12 shots. Ngwafang was also fouled a total of 11 times, a huge number by itself, but one that grows even more significant when adding in the fact that three of them resulted in and-ones – each of which was converted – to go with four other shooting fouls. In all, she connected on nine of her 11 free throw attempts.

“This week in practice, we’ve been doing a lot of finish through contact drills, so this game and [against NKU] I’ve been finishing through contact, especially in the second half,” Ngwafang explained, perhaps citing a bit of clairvoyance from the Vikings coaching staff. “I think that helped me a lot.”

The free throw side of things has been a bit more of a work in progress, but it’s started to pay dividends. Ngwafang was just a hair over 50 percent from the line through November and December (26-for-51), but during the 2022 portion of the schedule she’s been a respectable 68.3 percent (28-for-41).

“Recently I’ve been trying to get in the gym after practice and shoot a couple free throws, and I guess now it’s kind of added up and it’s showing the results,” she said.

“I just go up there, shoot my free throws, if it goes in, it goes in. If it doesn’t go in, it doesn’t go in. I have faith it’s going to go in though.”

“The players that have been fortunate enough to stay healthy have just been so focused on getting better,” Kielsmeier said. “[Ngwafang] spent a lot of her year thinking too much, and what you’ve seen the last few days, she’s just been going out there and playing.”

“They’re great to work with every day,” he added, referring to post players Ngwafang, Dumas, and Raevyn Harris. “They understand how physical of a game we need from them, and they understand how much we want to go through to them. If you’re a post player, you should look at Cleveland State because we’re going to get you the ball.”

“You look at the stats, you look at how many shots our post players got tonight (27), and that’s how we want to play. We want to play true old school inside-out basketball.”

Before Ngwafang and her post partners kicked into gear, the stats belonged to a few others. Leo scored CSU’s first seven points of the evening and had nine in the first quarter on the way to 14 overall, a nice bounceback from her struggles on Saturday. Isabella Geraci zoned in early as well, knocking down a three pointer that gave the Vikings the lead for good at 11-10, and winding up with 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting.

Six different CSU players, of the nine who saw the court, ended up with at least five rebounds: Ngwafang (12), Zieniewska (9), Dumas (8), Brittni Moore (7), Gradwell (6) and Geraci (6). In all, the Vikings ripped down a staggering 63 boards, against 37 for Wright State.

A Moore jumper early in the second quarter capped off a 15-2 CSU run and gave the Vikings their first double-digit lead at 23-12, while Ngwafang expanded the gap to 20 for the first time from the charity stripe just five game minutes later. From there, the second half mission was adjusted to “get out quickly and in one piece,” and despite some late chippiness that included three fourth quarter technical fouls, the home team successfully completed it.

Jada Wright starred for the Raiders in defeat by scoring 12 points while grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking six shots. Jada Roberson added a team-high 13 points for WSU.

This coming weekend, Cleveland State will face yet another stiff challenge in a closing schedule that offers a long series of them: games at the Wolstein Center against Youngstown State on Friday and Robert Morris on Sunday. The Colonials and the first-place Penguins delivered two of CSU’s three conference losses on their respective home courts back on December 30th and January 1st.

“It’s February, so any win is a huge win,” Ngwafang said. “We’re excited, we play hard, and we just take it one day at a time. I think everybody knows the goal ahead, and we’re seeing it through.”

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