Cleveland State closes in on bye after three-game Michigan sweep

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Following a homestand that ended with defeats to Youngstown State and Robert Morris, the Cleveland State women’s team rediscovered its form on a three-game trip to Michigan this past weekend, sweeping Oakland and Detroit Mercy to improve to 18-6 overall and 13-5 in the Horizon League. The victories kept the Vikings in solid position to finish in the top four of the league standings, a distinction that offers a first-round conference tournament bye and the guarantee of a home game in the quarterfinal round as rewards.

Cleveland State 85 at Oakland 65

In what could best be described as a get-right game following the pair of disappointing home losses, the Vikings pulled away in the fourth quarter for a decisive win over a solid Oakland team on Thursday night in OU’s Athletics Center O’rena.

CSU was led by Destiny Leo’s 24 points, and Nadia Dumas – who nearly didn’t make it to the game thanks to commuting separately from Cleveland for academic reasons and through a snowstorm that hit both Ohio and Michigan on Thursday – added 20 points and 10 rebounds.

While Cleveland State shot a sturdy 45.3 percent for the game and never trailed after a 7-5 score midway through the first quarter, they were still nearly matched blow for blow by the Golden Grizzlies for most of the first 30 minutes, as OU hit 43.3 percent of their shots. Each time the Vikings threatened to significantly separate, whether at 20-9 in the early going (after a 15-2 run from that 7-5 point) or at 41-31 late in the first half, Oakland seemed to have a three pointer in its back pocket. Kahlaijah Dean led that charge with a team-high 17 points, mostly on her 5-for-13 effort from behind the arc, and four other Grizzlies also tripled.

“They hit us with some stuff that we knew was coming,” Cleveland State coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We’re making too many mistakes defensively, we track contested shots versus uncontested shots, and the uncontested shot total is just too high every night, and that means we’re making too many mistakes.”

Ultimately, the Vikings’ biggest differentiators came through defense and rebounding, as CSU rolled up a staggering 50-25 edge on the glass, led by Amele Ngwafang’s 14 caroms and Dumas’ 10. Cleveland State missed 35 field goals during the evening but collected 18 offensive rebounds, leading to 23 second-chance points.

A mostly-healthy Gabriella Smith also provided a boost, particularly during the Vikings’ 26-point fourth quarter that turned an arm’s length nine-point margin into 20 by the final horn. After being limited for two weeks following an injury in the opening moments of CSU’s win over Northern Kentucky on February 5th, Smith scored eight of her 15 points over the final ten minutes. She also had four of the team’s nine steals, and generally reinvigorated the Vikings’ vertical flow.

“She wasn’t that healthy last weekend, and Gabby’s really important to our defense,” Kielsmeier said. “She puts a lot of ball pressure up on top, and she hit some big shots tonight as well.”

Kielsmeier also praised his leading scorer who, like Smith, delivered her best game in a couple weeks.

“[Leo] was really aggressive to the basket, she didn’t settle for jumpers,” he said. “That jumper’s as pure as it gets, but sometimes I think she settles for it a bit too much, and she didn’t tonight. She was in full-blown attack mode and worked it downhill.”

“We really fired offensively tonight.”

Cleveland State 74 at Detroit Mercy 70

When kids imagine themselves winning a game while messing around on their driveway, on a playground, or in a gym, it’s usually Game 7 of the NBA Finals and they need to hit some sort of twisting 30-footer against a dying clock.

It’s usually not free throws. And it certainly isn’t a 1-24 Detroit Mercy team on the other bench.

However, that’s where Izzy Geraci found herself with four seconds left and her team desperately trying to close out the Titans. The home team had rallied from multiple double-digit deficits during an emotional senior day to close to within two, while carrying most of the game’s momentum. Thanks to a quick 7-0 run completed entirely within the last minute of the contest and fueled by Tori Powell and Daija Moses, UDM had thrown legitimate doubt into something that looked like an only mildly uneasy Viking victory a mere 90 game seconds prior.

“Those free throws by Izzy were huge, because we certainly didn’t close the game out prior to that the right way,” Kielsmeier said. “We had a couple costly turnovers, they had a couple putback rebounds.”

“[They] were probably the two biggest free throws, shots, of the entire road trip.”

Geraci’s efforts, which included 12 points and seven rebounds in 28 minutes – her second-largest helping of playing time this season – were essential in helping the Vikings avert a disastrous loss. Leo led CSU with 22 points, while Smith chipped in 12 and Ngwafang added eight with a game-high 13 rebounds.

Regardless of all of that, the Titans did just enough to linger in the contest at key moments in preparation for their final push. CSU never trailed in the contest after 4-2 and eventually flexed its lead to 11 at the half thanks to a late Geraci three, then to 12 early in the third quarter on a Barbara Zieniewska triple. From there though, UDM scored 16 of the game’s next 23 points to pull within three. The Vikings finally managed to crack the double-digit barrier again on a pair of Leo free throws to make the score 70-59 with 4:19 remaining, before the Titans forced the dramatic finish headlined by Geraci’s clutch foul shooting.

Detroit Mercy’s interior game was largely responsible for their successes, as physical post players Janna Lewis and Daija Moses combined for 27 points and seemed nearly impossible to corral at times. Irene Murua, a slasher that offers a nice compliment to the two bruisers, led the Titans in both scoring and rebounding, with 16 and 9, respectively.

“You’ve got to give their coach and their players a lot of credit for really continuing to compete at a high level [despite their record], Kielsmeier said. “I like their basketball team, they’ve got really good inside players, people that can make a lot of trouble for you on the inside, and when they’re hitting shots on the outside, they’re really difficult to defend.”

Cleveland State 80 at Detroit Mercy 60

CSU used a third-quarter-closing 23-5 run to finally separate from Detroit Mercy in a Monday afternoon victory to finish their successful swing through the mitten. Five Vikings scored in double figures during the contest (a makeup of a postponed game scheduled for January 6th in Cleveland), led by Leo and Smith with 18 points, while Ngwafang, Dumas, and Brittni Moore each bucketed 12.

Though the final score was ultimately comfortable, the game was anything but that for the first 23 minutes or so, as the Titans had their sights set on doing five points better than Saturday’s result. In particular, UDM was bolstered by Powell, who buried five first half three pointers (of her first six attempted), while Monique Pruitt and Sonia Pereda also offered key offensive contributions.

Notably less present in the box score than on Saturday were the Titans’ post players, Lewis and Moses. Although Lewis hit a desperation heave from near Dick Vitale’s autograph just past the centerline of the court named for the legendary coach and broadcaster to put her team up by two at the half, the pair combined for just 11 points and eight rebounds while being saddled with foul trouble for the second game in a row. The victors of the paint confrontation’s rematch, Ngwafang and Dumas, combined to block seven shots while pulling down 18 boards.

“Our post players were disappointed with how they played on Saturday, and they were really focused for [today] and wanted to show a lot better performance,” Kielsmeier said. “And they did, they showed a lot of physicality, rebounded well, and just played the way they’re capable of playing.”

Nevertheless, neither team led by more than six points until Cleveland State began its decisive third quarter run. During the outburst, fueled by five Vikings steals among nine total Detroit Mercy turnovers, Leo and Smith did most of the heavy lifting. The duo connected on 11 and nine points, respectively, during the run – much of it while running the floor after a turnover or rebound.

“Our guards put a lot of pressure on the ball and they squeezed down on that high post,” Kielsmeier said. “We made better reads in transition, we had a lot of points in transition that we left out there in the first half with errant passes and not finishing layups.”

“The second half was the best half of basketball we’ve played all year.”

With a fresh three-game winning streak in hand, the Vikings will return to the Wolstein Center for their final two games of the regular season, against Milwaukee on Thursday and Green Bay on Saturday. The team’s Horizon League tournament seeding scenarios are very simple at this point: CSU needs to win one of the two games (or have Northern Kentucky lose one of its final two games, against Oakland and Detroit Mercy) to lock down, at worst, the fourth seed and its built-in advantages.

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