Editor’s Note: Guest writer Brendan Connelly is the Assistant Sports Editor at Northern Kentucky’s student newspaper, The Northerner.
The Cleveland State Vikings ended their season with a 72-68 loss to the Xavier Musketeers in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament on Tuesday night. As the Horizon League regular season champions, the Vikings made their first NIT appearance since 2012.
“I want to congratulate Cleveland State on a heck of a year. Dennis Gates is doing a tremendous job there.” Xavier head coach Travis Steele said.
From the outset, the game was destined to be a rock fight. Early pressure by Cleveland State led to three Musketeer turnovers. Despite close looks at the rim, the Vikings failed to convert as both sides combined to shoot 2-10 in the early going. With Xavier unable to find the bottom of the net until four minutes in, the Vikings took a modest 4-2 lead into the first media timeout.
“They were throwing everything at us. Man to man, full court trap, two-three zone.” Xavier junior Adam Kunkel said
A Jack Nunge three brought the Musketeers within one, but Broc Finstuen responded with a driving layup and an assist to Deonte Johnson for a dunk to keep the lead intact.
Kunkel’s first basket of the night gave Xavier their first lead with less than eight minutes remaining in the first half. The Musketeers took the lead as part of a 9-0 run, while Cleveland State remained scoreless for 4:34.
The Vikings regained life, getting contributions from Finstuen and Trey Gomillion in a back-and-forth game.Torrey Patton scored four of his team-high eight points in the final two minutes, but it was Kunkel’s second three of the night that gave the Musketeers a 29-28 halftime lead.
Despite missing all of their free throws and long range attempts, the Vikings shot 42% from the field, scoring 24 of their 28 points in the paint. Patton’s eight rebounds also led the Vikings, who held a 23-21 advantage on the boards. Nunge’s seven points paced the Musketeers, who shot 35% in the half.
“They’re like piranhas. That ball goes up, they just attack.” Steele said. “Gomillion’s one of my favorite guys I’ve watched on film. He is an absolute warrior.”
Aided by a Paul Scruggs technical foul, the Vikings went on a 7-0 run to start the second half. The lead eventually stretched to seven before baskets by Kunkel and Nate Johnson brought Xavier back within a point. The Musketeers struggled on offense largely due to a mix-up in defensive schemes by Gates. A team that typically deploys a 2-3 zone defense used it on only one possession, causing trouble for Nunge and Zach Freemantle.
Clinging to the slimmest of leads, the game slowed to a crawl. The teams exchanged trips to the free throw line as fouls piled up.
After a Gomillion layup gave the Vikings a four-point lead, Kunkel and Scruggs willed the Musketeers to a 47-47 tie, awakening the Cintas Center crowd. A three from Nunge gave Xavier their first lead since halftime.
“Our guys continued to fight. They went on a little run, and we responded.” Steele said.
Despite poor shooting, Xavier made five straight free throws after entering the double bonus. As a result of 16 second half fouls by the Vikings, Xavier converted 15-21 free throws. The Musketeers grabbed their largest lead of the night at 59-55 before D’Moi Hodge drained the Vikings’ first three-pointer of the night with 5:30 left. Cleveland State averaged 6.5 threes per game in the regular season, but went just 1-12 against the Musketeers.
With Cleveland State unable to convert on offense, Xavier increased their lead one point at a time until a Scruggs putback layup gave the Musketeers a 70-65 advantage with one minute left.
Hodge responded, making three free throws to bring it to a two-point deficit. After a Nate Johnson shot went wide, the Vikings had a chance 19 seconds left. But Gomillion slipped on his way to the basket, fumbling the ball away as time ran out on the Vikings’ season.
Hodge scored 14 of his team-high 16 points in the second half to lead four Vikings in double figures. Patton’s third double-double of the season saw him finish with 13 points and 11 rebounds. Gomillion added 14, and Johnson finished with 11.
“They played super hard.” Zach Freemantle said.
Freemantle’s notched his fourth double-double of the season, matching Patton’s stat line with 13 points and 11 rebounds. He also led the team with four blocks. Kunkel, Nunge, Scruggs, and Colby Jones all finished in double figures to round out a balanced Musketeer scoring attack.
The Vikings finish the 2021-2022 campaign with a record of 20-11, while the Musketeers move on to face the winner of Florida and Iona.