A dominant defensive effort, along with a game-high 18 points by Destiny Leo, propelled the Cleveland State women’s team into the Horizon League semifinals with a 59-51 win over Northern Kentucky in the tournament’s quarterfinal round at the Wolstein Center on Thursday night.
CSU set the tone of the game – which never saw a Viking deficit – from the opening tip, limiting the Norse to just 2-for-14 from the floor and six total points in the first quarter, while closing the quarter on an 8-0 run and building a 12-point lead that was never seriously threatened the rest of the way.
For her part Leo, who was held to a single point during the teams’ previous meeting on February 5th, immediately served notice that things would be different in March, burying an early three pointer to put the Vikings up 5-0, then adding three others later, finishing 4-for-9 from behind the arc.
“It always feels good to have the first one go in, we’ve been preaching that we need to start well, and today we did that, we jumped out to a good lead,” Leo observed. We were sharing the ball, and that was helping us get out for a big lead.”
While the Norse’s shooting improved as the game proceeded, all-conference guards Lindsey Duvall and Ivy Turner never truly made an impact on events, as the perimeter defense of Leo, Gabriella Smith, and others limited the duo to a combined 18 points on 7-for-28 shooting. Smith and Isabelle Gradwell each scored 11 points for the home side, while Smith also collected five steals (along with numerous close calls that disrupted the NKU offense).
“We were keen on [Duvall and Turner] at the beginning of the game, those are girls that are going to help them win the game, so we have to defend and focus on them,” Leo said.
As is usually the case when CSU’s playing well, the steals and rebounds caused by strong defense helped the Vikings get into their preferred style of running the floor, with Smith and Leo often working in tandem during those sequences.
“This is our first year playing together, but I feel like me and her learned how to play together really fast,” Leo said. “Me and her have fun together out there, and I think that helps the entire team. Her defense is great, she gets in those passing lanes, and then we can push the ball in transition. She’s always helping us out with that.”
With Northern Kentucky’s stars largely shut down, the Norse were led by sharpshooter Kennedy Igo, who scored 12 points, and Grayson Rose’s ten rebounds to go with eight points. NKU did lightly test the strength of the CSU lead a few times, but the Vikings had an answer for each leverage point, including a Leo three and a Smith transition layup after the margin shrunk to five in the second quarter.
When a 36-21 halftime lead crept back under ten, four quick points from Leo and Brittni Moore restored order. A banked Deja Williams three to beat an expiring shot clock early in the fourth quarter helped repel the last serious challenge.
The win marks the third consecutive time that the Vikings have qualified for the conference final four, held in Indianapolis, making them one of two teams in the league (along with IUPUI) to participate in the event each season since it moved to Naptown in 2019-20.
“[The accomplishment] stamps where your program’s at in the league,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “When the year starts, you’ve gotta validate that, you’ve gotta make sure it happens again, so you can keep talking about it, or it goes away. It means that we’re one of the top teams in the Horizon League, no question.”
“But we’ve gotta go there to win, because we haven’t won up there yet. We’re not about getting to Indy. We’re about winning in Indy.”
“This group has been through a lot of adversity for four months, and their chemistry, and their toughness, and their togetherness is just incredible,” Kielsmeier added. “We played well tonight, won it from 5:30 to 7:30, but we really won it from what we’ve been doing year-round, the commitment that this program has to getting better and the belief that they have in each other. It’s something special.”