The suffocating defense of the Cleveland State women’s team has claimed another victim.
Four days after stifling fifth-seeded Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League quarterfinal round at the Wolstein Center, the tournament’s fourth seed collected an even more impressive result: a 69-42 domination of third-seeded Green Bay that was never in any serious doubt after the game’s first media timeout.
With the victory, the Vikings advanced to Tuesday’s championship match, where they will face conference regular season co-champion IUPUI for the league’s NCAA Tournament autobid. The Jaguars throttled Oakland 86-63 in the afternoon’s first semifinal.
“We were ready today,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We always talk about ignoring the noise and preparing for the moment long before the moment comes. This group has been preparing for this moment, really, for years.”
In stark contrast to a regular-season-closing meeting in Cleveland, won 66-64 by the visitors and featuring three consecutive Green Bay three pointers early in both the first and third quarters that kept the Vikings at arm’s length, the Phoenix were completely shut down from behind the arc on Monday, connecting on just four of 33 attempts. In all, UWGB shot 29.3 percent from the floor.
“We were disappointed with how we played on Senior Day,” Kielsmeier said. “We honored seven seniors that day, so the amount of emotion we carried prior to tipoff, I don’t think we handled that well.”
“We had a lot of stuff on film to show them that they needed to do better, and you gotta believe that you can do better, and they did and went out and executed it. Green Bay did not have their best shooting night, but we were fortunate that we were able to defend them good enough to speed them up and maybe make some of the wide open ones be a little bit hard for them mentally.”
CSU, on the other hand, stormed out of the gates, led by Isabelle Gradwell. The senior scored the first points of the game on a pair of free throws, then tripled her haul shortly after with a pair of three pointers just under three minutes apart. The latter bucket made the score 14-5 established the Vikings on their front foot.
“Just a lot of credit to my teammates,” Gradwell, who wound up with 12 points, seven rebounds, and four assists, said. “I was open, they passed me the ball, and I feel like that was really just it.”
Cleveland State’s lead was never smaller than nine after Deja Williams’ buzzer-beating three popped the score out to 17-7 Vikings at the end of the first quarter, and the margin ballooned as high as 31 in the late stages of the contest after CSU exploded into the fourth quarter on a 22-4 run that took the game from “comfortable, but not prohibitively so,” into laugher territory.
While Gradwell keyed the early going, Nadia Dumas asserted herself late in the second quarter, scoring six of her 12 points over the final five minutes of the half to help the Vikings head to the locker room with a 13-point lead. The redshirt senior also grabbed six rebounds, while Barbara Zieniewska led the Vikings’ defensive efforts with a game-high 13 boards along with a pair of blocks.
The result was stunning, not just in the context of the teams’ February 26th meeting, but also historically, as the Phoenix owned a 69-8 advantage in the all-time series entering the Horizon League tournament. However, the tide has turned somewhat over the last couple years, as the Vikings have now ended consecutive Green Bay campaigns after following up a 69-63 victory in the 2021 quarterfinal round with Monday’s result. CSU has now won three of the last five meetings overall.
The Vikings are also headed to their first Horizon League championship game since 2010, a high-water mark for long-time program anchors Dumas and Gradwell.
“It means a lot to us,” Dumas said. “It’s our third time here, and the first year, we’d never been here before. Then last year, we got here for the second time and fell short. Going through this run for the third time shows our commitment and what we’re capable of doing.”
“This was a game where, like Nadi said, the past two years we’ve been here and fell short,” Gradwell added. “This was a game that I really, really wanted to win and that we needed to win. This isn’t just for this team, it’s for the two teams before where we fell short. It’s a big win for our program.”
“What we did today was really a culmination of four years,” Kielsmeier said. “We’ve had moments [in Indianapolis] that didn’t go the way we wanted them to. You just gotta stay the course and believe that bigger and better things ahead, you just gotta go to work.”
“[Dumas and Gradwell] have gone to work for four years. They’ve worked, they put the hours in. Everyone understands how much they’ve committed to having days like this.”