Vikings rally, but fall to IUPUI in #HLWBB title game

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In the first minute of the second quarter of Tuesday’s Horizon League women’s championship game in Indianapolis, a Macee Williams effort from the paint made the score 25-9 in favor of top-seeded IUPUI over Cleveland State. Williams, a four-time conference player of the year who would go on to win the league tournament’s MVP award, had 13 points and four rebounds after her shot, on the way to 19 points and 18 rebounds for the game.

She was joined by most of her usual running mates, particularly Destiny Perkins and Rachel McLimore, who wound up with 15 and 11 points, respectively.

Same old, same old? It certainly had to be in the backs of Viking supporters’ minds, given their team’s monumental struggles with the Jaguars in recent seasons. Since IUPUI joined the Horizon League in 2017-18, they’ve gone 11-0 overall against CSU, with few of those games being particularly close. In the most recent meeting, on January 29th, the Jaguars used an early three-point barrage to cruise to an 82-64 victory.

IUPUI, of course, has been doing that to a lot of teams in recent years, including a win over national player of the year candidate Caitlin Clark and Big Ten champion Iowa back in December. Additionally, a senior-laden roster was on something of a redemption tour following a 2020 conference tournament championship that came with a moot NCAA Tournament autobid, followed by a loss to Wright State in 2021’s final. The Jags carried a string of impressive results both in and out of the Horizon League, had been flat-out destroying just about everything in their path in recent weeks, and they found themselves up by 16 in the second quarter of the title game.

“Give IUPUI credit, they’re one heck of a basketball team, they’ve been together for a long time, and Coach Parkinson does an incredible job,” CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier said.

“They are so good at executing in their half-court set,” he added. “They’re as good as I’ve been around. If they make a mistake, they’re going to exploit that mistake.”

But then, a funny thing happened on the way to IUPUI’s coronation.

The shift was subtle at first, as the Vikings’ defense started to string together a few stops midway through the second quarter, holding IUPUI to just 3-for-14 from the floor in the frame. Then the offense joined in, with consecutive three pointers by Deja Williams and Gabriella Smith pulling CSU within ten. A Destiny Leo jumper got it to single digits, and while McLimore answered with a three to make the margin 11 at halftime, notice had been given that CSU intended to make a game of things.

A solid Jags start to the third did little to deter the push from the tournament’s fourth seed as, shortly after the TV timeout, Leo scored on a layup, and Smith immediately stole IUPUI’s subsequent inbound attempt and grabbed her own bucket. Those two plays kicked off a 15-3 CSU run to close the quarter, highlighted by several steals along with a pair of threes by Leo, and one by Isabella Geraci.

Just like that, it was a six-point game with ten minutes to play.

“We had to get them out of their half-court set, we had to speed them up and try to get them out of their rhythm,” Kielsmeier said of his move to begin pressing in the second half. “We started to press and they stopped thinking so much, and started playing more and having a lot of fun.”

“I think our press helped us out a lot, we were pressuring the ball and getting steals, then converting on those steals,” Leo, who scored 14 points and joined Macee Williams on the all-tournament team, added.

The Vikings kept rolling after the fourth quarter started, with a Geraci triple opening up the frame. That bucket pulled CSU within three, and while they got a defensive stop, their subsequent possession with a chance to tie the game resulted in a turnover. That play foreshadowed another harmful giveaway, with 2:48 remaining and the score set 51-49 Jaguars.

Two IUPUI possessions later, with 1:34 to go and the score 53-51, Destiny Perkins hit a three pointer while being fouled by Smith and converted the four-point play to cover most of the remaining distance towards sealing the title for the Jaguars.

“If we could get the lead, I felt like that would put a lot of pressure on them, but we just couldn’t get over the hump,” Kielsmeier lamented.

“We needed a few more [steals] at the end of the day,” Leo added.

With the win, IUPUI earned the Horizon League’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, as most expected would happen all season long, and the Jaguars will learn their path to a national championship on Selection Sunday.

Still, for a fleeting moment, Cleveland State stared down a juggernaut and looked to make its own mark on history.

“This isn’t what you want, you didn’t come here to get second place,” Kielsmeier said. “But it’s a big step for our program, and we will go into the offseason with unequivocally a championship mindset to come back to Indy and win it next year.”

There will be other moments, certainly, it only takes a casual observer to see the trajectory the program has taken under Kielsmeier’s guidance, and the work required to capitalize on the next moment never lets up.

“We all want to do it how Coach Gates does [with the CSU men’s team that won the Horizon League championship in his second season leading the program], but it doesn’t usually work out that way,” Kielsmeier said. “It usually has to be done in increments. And you’ve gotta be patient enough to understand that, you’ve gotta put the work in.”

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