The Cleveland State women’s team received a massive blow to its Horizon League standings position over the weekend, suffering home defeats to both Youngstown State and Robert Morris to drop from third place to fifth, with a 10-5 conference record. The Vikings are now 13-6 overall.
Youngstown State 77 at Cleveland State 69 (OT)
In a lot of ways, things were lined up perfectly for Cleveland State.
You can start with the basic context, of course. The first CSU-Youngstown State game of the season, a physical Penguins victory at the Beeghly Center on New Year’s Day, came during a stretch of only a few days between Vikings COVID pauses, with minimal practice time in the two weeks prior. By Friday, however, Chris Kielsmeier’s team was in a relatively decent place health wise (beyond the season-long injuries to players like Taylah Levy and Aminata Ly, along with Gabriella Smith’s nagging leg injury). The Vikings had started to roll again too, winning six of seven since that first YSU game including particularly notable victories over Milwaukee and Northern Kentucky.
Beyond that, there were a lot of the usual trappings of any game that’s both large – the teams each entered the game within the top three standings positions – and involves a rival. A grassroots attendance push, eventually endorsed through official channels, resulted in one of the season’s more robust crowds, including four students spelling out “CSU” in chest paint (the white blob on the green background of the fourth was presumably intended as a Magnus head).
Then the game itself started and, after a miss on the Vikings’ first possession, Destiny Leo was hitting everything. In the last 3:11 of the opening quarter, the sophomore buried three triples among her 11 points in the frame, the last of which was a bomb from just beyond half court as time expired.
26-21 Vikings. So far, so good.
However, the game immediately turned defensive, with CSU bearing the brunt of the effect initially, as the home side would remain stuck on 26 points until 3:12 remained in the half. No Viking was immune including Leo who, after going 4-for-5 in the first quarter, went 3-for-12 the rest of the way while still finishing with a team-best 18 points. Overall, Cleveland State shot 23.1 percent in the second quarter, though a Barbara Zieniewska corner three at the horn managed to keep things manageable at the half, with YSU ahead 38-34.
“We’ve had some offensive lacks all year, and it really comes down to two things,” Kielsmeier explained. “We’ve got to finish the shots that we should hit, we consistently miss a lot of easy shots. And other times, we’ve got to execute better. We’ve got to get better shots and better ball movement.”
While Lilly Ritz was her usual Player of the Year candidate self with 17 points and 18 rebounds for the game, the Penguins’ go-to weapons were their ball movement and three-point shooting. YSU ran up a staggering 19 assists on 27 made field goals for the game, with Chelsea Olson’s six helpers leading the way. Olson was on the other end of things plenty as well, burying 5-for-10 from behind the arc on the way to a game-high 21 points. Mady Aulbach (4-for-7 among her career-best 14 points), Megan Callahan (3-for-8), and Malia Magestro (2-for-6) were the other Penguins with multiple deep balls.
Kielsmeier lamented his team’s defense against the series of effective-shooting YSU guards.
“When you’re going against a team that you know is a good three-point shooting team and they shoot a lot of them, you don’t just look at the makes, you look at the attempts,” he said. “For us to allow them to shoot 38 threes, our perimeter defense has got to be better than that.”
Immediately after the break, an Aulbach three and a Ritz two put YSU up nine, but the Vikings defense – as it similarly did when facing an eight-point third quarter deficit against Northern Kentucky during the previous weekend – clamped down, fueling an 11-0 CSU run. A Brittni Moore layup capped the surge and gave Cleveland State its first lead since midway through the second quarter.
The teams traded punches from there, though consecutive Amele Ngwafang layups (representing four of her eight points, to go with 12 rebounds) gave the Vikings their last best advantage, at 61-55 with 4:24 remaining in regulation.
“When we built the lead late, we did it the Cleveland State way,” Kielsmeier said. “Just hard-nosed defense, we really weren’t making mistakes, and making it really hard for them to get the shots that they wanted.”
At that point though, it was again the Penguins’ defense’s turn to control the game, as CSU was held scoreless for the remainder of regulation time, allowing YSU to eventually tie things up on a Magestro three, then for the first half of the overtime period – by which point the Guins led 66-61. Smith and Leo offered their own threes down the stretch, though they were both answered quickly by one of Youngstown State’s snipers, and the extra period ended anticlimactically.
“That was a great college basketball game,” Kielsmeier said. “Great environment. Just disappointed that we didn’t execute better down the stretch. We just didn’t make enough plays offensively, and then we made a couple big mistakes defensively, and give Youngstown credit, because they hit those shots.”
Robert Morris 68 at Cleveland State 54
There’s an old cliché where, after a tough defeat, coaches admonish their team to not allow the loss to count twice – meaning, of course, to not allow regret, self-pity, and other mental hazards affect what happens on the court in the subsequent game. However, that may have been exactly what happened on Sunday when an underdog Robert Morris team rolled into the Wolstein Center and thoroughly dominated the Vikings.
“Clearly we weren’t ready to play,” a frustrated Kielsmeier said afterwards. “We got outplayed, we got outcoached, we just have to be better.”
At the same time, to reduce things to mental blocks and the CSU side of things doesn’t do justice to the scope of the Colonials’ effort. From the moment Sol Castro knocked down a three 1:38 into the game to put her team ahead 5-2, RMU never trailed. The visitors shot 8-for-14 from the floor in the first quarter (including additional triples from Nina Augustin and Esther Castedo) and while things tapered off slightly from there, Robert Morris still wound up firing at a 45 percent clip for the afternoon. While the three pointer is always in play for RMU, acting head coach Scott Schneider’s overall offensive approach was altered a bit from their win over the Vikings on December 30th. This time around, he relied more on his post players, including Castro and seemingly-always-open Ashya Klopfenstein, whose 8-for-12 line produced a team-high 16 points to go with the Indiana native’s eight rebounds.
Cleveland State generally managed to keep pace deep into the second quarter, thanks largely to Nadia Dumas, who clocked the latest in a string of strong performances this season with 21 points and eight rebounds (along with 11 drawn fouls). Leo added 15 points, while Izzy Geraci scored five with five rebounds and injected effort-fueled energy to the floor at several points for a team that seemed to always be at a deficit in that department compared to the raucous Colonials bench. With 3:51 remaining in the first half, a pair of Deja Williams free throws trimmed the RMU lead to 24-23.
The Vikings would not score again until three minutes had passed in the second half and by then, Robert Morris had gone on a 17-0 run and left 41-23. Despite some pushes of various strength, particularly in the late third and early fourth quarters, CSU didn’t pull the margin under 12 the rest of the way.
“We didn’t defend, they did,” Kielsmeier said. “They hit a lot of open shots. The few open shots that we got, I don’t think we hit any of them.”
With the pair of defeats, Cleveland State has gone from a team with realistic dreams of a Horizon League regular season title to one simply trying to rediscover its identity in time to secure a first-round bye in the conference tournament and, preferably, a home game in the quarterfinal round.
“I think people who have followed our program closely, this time of year, you know what you’re going to get,” Kielsmeier said.
“We may not be good enough to win that night, but you have a very good understanding of how we’ll play and how we’re going to go about winning games. And we just don’t have a very clear identity with that. Part of it is that we want to defend, rebound, and transition, and we didn’t do any of those three tonight.”
The Vikings will attempt to right the ship this coming week with games at Oakland on Thursday and Detroit Mercy on Saturday. CSU will be seeing both opponents for the first time this season, as their scheduled games in Cleveland in early January were wiped out due to COVID protocols.