Five things to watch as the Vikings begin postseason play

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After a split of its final two regular season games over the weekend – a 67-55 win over Milwaukee on Thursday, followed by a 66-64 defeat against Green Bay on Saturday – the Cleveland State women’s team wrapped up regular season play as the Horizon League’s fourth place team with a 14-6 league record (part of a 19-7 overall mark). With their top-four finish, the Vikings earned a first round bye in the conference tournament and will host a quarterfinal game at the Wolstein Center on Thursday. From there, they will try to advance to next week’s semifinals and championship game in Indianapolis with an eye on the program’s first league title (and the NCAA Tournament bid that goes with it) since 2010.

Here are five players, trends, or situations to watch as CSU begins its postseason run.

1. Destiny Three-o

Leo, of course, is often a show in and of herself, and that was never the case more than in the latter stages of the Green Bay game. Midway through the fourth quarter of the contest, the Phoenix led 59-42 and looked like a sure bet to cruise to the finish line (in fact, ESPN’s win probability calculator had UWGB at 99.9 percent as late as 4:26 remaining). Then, Leo simply exploded. Consecutive threes, followed by one from Barbara Zieniewska – all within 45 seconds – almost instantly took a 15-point deficit down to just six. After some exchanged free throws, Leo hit two more threes with 67 and 33 seconds left to trim the Green Bay advantage to just one. Ten seconds after that second burst, however, she fouled out after a turnover on an errant inbound pass with Cleveland State down by three, and the Phoenix narrowly survived when Deja Williams’ buzzer-beating heave hit the back of the iron.   

Still, message sent, both about the team’s resilience and about Leo specifically. The former Ohio Ms. Basketball runner-up (who ended up with 27 points and, appropriately enough, recently changed her Twitter handle to @destinythreeo) has broken all the way out of a bit of a mini-slump during the early part of February and is capable of turning a loss into a win very quickly.

2. How the bracket shapes up

Officially, as the fourth seed in the Horizon League tournament, CSU is set to host the “highest remaining seed” following the completion of Tuesday’s first round in a quarterfinal game on Thursday at the Wolstein Center. Unofficially, it’s going to be fifth-seeded Northern Kentucky, as the Norse play for the trip to Cleveland at BB&T Arena against the conference’s last-place team, 1-21 Detroit Mercy (coincidentally, those teams also met on the last day of the regular season, with NKU rolling 67-44). The Vikings, for their part, swept Northern Kentucky this season – though both games were close, with February 5th’s meeting in Cleveland coming down to a missed Carissa Garcia three at the horn.

The Norse are led by Lindsey Duvall, one of the two or three opposing players in the conference capable of taking over a game the way Leo does, while Ivy Turner, Grayson Rose, Emmy Souder, and Khamari Mitchell-Steen are extremely effective in their respective roles. However, while NKU is a formidable challenge, should the Vikings win, and should chalk hold elsewhere, an even larger one awaits in the semifinals on March 7th: regular season conference champion IUPUI and player of the year frontrunner Macee Williams, a team that has mostly flattened CSU at every available opportunity over the past few seasons.

Upsets elsewhere could at least delay a potential date with IUPUI until the conference championship game, should a team seeded lower than the Vikings advance to Indianapolis. Leading possibilities on that front include sixth-seeded Milwaukee, which hosts UIC in the first round before visiting (most likely) Green Bay for the quarterfinals and hoping for a repeat of their upset of the Phoenix last Monday. Number seven Oakland is another dangerous lower seed, as the Golden Grizzlies have defeated Youngstown State this year, and a rematch with the Penguins is a distinct possibility in the quarterfinal round.

3. The Vikings’ postal service

It’s hard to do justice to Nadia Dumas’ evolution this season. The redshirt senior has always been a gritty team leader, performing the often-thankless work of defense and rebounding, while chipping in the occasional putback bucket. Despite being somewhat undersized, she’s always held her own against some of the league’s biggest stars and done an admirable job.

In her final season, though, she’s been something else altogether: an all-conference team candidate. Her 12.1 points per game in Horizon League play rank 14th, she’s 11th with 6.2 rebounds per game, and her 1.2 blocked shots per game are sixth. Dumas has accumulated those stats despite playing fewer minutes than most of the players above her on any of those lists, as she’s often shared the floor with Amele Ngwafang. The future nurse is trending upwards too, with double-digit points in eight of her last nine games (including a pair of 20-point efforts), increasingly finding extra room to work against teams that attempt to suffocate Leo.

Dumas and Ngwafang compliment each other incredibly well, with the latter serving as more of a physical banger (who herself is fifth in the league in both rebounding and blocks), while Dumas plays a bit more of a finesse game. In tandem, they’ve elevated the Vikings’ post game from serviceable to one of the conference’s best, and every bit as effective as more publicized individual players at IUPUI, Youngstown State, and Milwaukee.

4. The ups and downs of CSU’s defense

Often, depending on the outcome, Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier will sit in his postgame media availability, shrug, and say “well, that’s the good and the bad of our zone” when asked about one of a game’s storylines.

The bad, in general terms and as most know, is its susceptibility to perimeter ball movement and good three-point shooters. In fact, almost every Cleveland State loss this season has involved some sort of opponent heater from three. In the early part of the conference season, it was Lexi Wagner from Youngstown State and Alejandra Mastral from Robert Morris at pivotal moments in those games. Then, it was Rachel Kent at IUPUI. More recently, it was the Penguins again, as Chelsea Olson, Mady Aulbach, and Megan Callahan led a 15-for-38 effort on February 11th, and a lot of the reason Green Bay held on to win Saturday involved the fact that they started the first and third quarters with 9-0 and 12-3 runs, both built entirely with three balls. While the Vikings managed to defeat Detroit Mercy last Monday, Tori Powell certainly made things interesting for a while.

On the other side, of course, is what’s played out other times, most recently against Milwaukee and Oakland: the Vikings shut down the interior, generate turnovers, and get rolling downhill the other way for some easy points. The Panthers looked exceptionally lost at times on Thursday on the way to 25 turnovers during the game, many of them coming on passes airmailed out of bounds trying to force a lob underneath to Megan Walstad, simple miscommunications, or the tried and true shot clock violation (something that, situationally, CSU forces as well as any team in the conference).  

Gabriella Smith is squarely in the middle of a lot of the good things the defense accomplishes, and her resurgence after suffering a minor injury on February 5th has fueled the team’s successful late-season push for the bye. In her last five games, since being able to resume her normal workload, she has 16 steals, most of them ending in transition buckets for Leo or Williams.

More often than not, the Vikings’ fate will be determined by its defense, and it’s usually not very hard to figure out how things are going from a few key indicators.

5. Filling the dance card

Cleveland State ended the regular season ranked 160th in NET, which likely places the Vikings well out of range for NCAA or WNIT at-large consideration. So from here on out, it’s a clear mission, as it is with almost every mid-major team: conference tournament champion’s NCAA autobid or bust. It’s also an attainable one for a team that certainly won’t be considered one of the first-cut favorites in the playoffs, but that has shown well enough against the likes of Green Bay and Youngstown State to be considered a legitimate darkhorse.

Should the Vikings fall short of that goal, two other postseason options exist. One, of course, is the Women’s Basketball Invitational (WBI), where CSU could conceivably stage a defense of last season’s title. This season’s WBI, as in 2021, involves eight teams with a full consolation bracket and a three-game guarantee. It will be played on March 18th, 19th, and 20th in Lexington, KY, at Transylvania University’s Clive M. Beck Center.

Another postseason tournament, a new one whose existence was just revealed on February 10th, is the Women’s College Invitational Tournament (WCIT). Its format and dates are identical to those of the WBI, and it will be played even closer to home, in Columbus, OH at Ohio Dominican University.

Different programs have vastly divergent attitudes towards the smaller tournaments outside of the NCAA Tournament and the WNIT, but Kielsmeier has often said that if someone is offering him more basketball games, he’s going to want to play more basketball games. So look for CSU to pursue any available opportunities at the WBI or WCIT, if things come to that.

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