Where else would you rather be?


Nobody wants to defend a WBI title.  

That much should be obvious to anyone, since a team’s very participation in the annual third-cut tournament is conditional on coming up short somewhere else. For Cleveland State, “somewhere else” was Indianapolis and the Horizon League championship game with an NCAA Tournament autobid on the line.  

The lost autobid was on the line, but it wasn’t the end of the line. Snow days and Selection Sunday might not have quite the magic they used to, because what used to be a closed-door process is now entirely out in the open. There may be one or two surprises and some quibbling over seed lines, but for the most part, everyone pretty much knows what the wizard looks like before Toto grabs the curtain and pulls. 

Then again, that’s only true of the NCAA Tournament. The lower tournaments are an entirely different machine and nearly impossible to predict. For starters the pools of available teams, literal everyone in the NCAA Tournament’s case, isn’t known with absolute certainty until the NCAA selection committee is done. And while computers help a ton from there, a truly accurate WNIT or WBI bracketology is still impossible because there are plenty of factors involved in selection that simply aren’t quantifiable, many of them revolving around the idea of schools accepting bids in one way or another instead of saving some money and packing it in for the year. Fortune favors the willing (and the moneyed), and participants are often teams that wouldn’t have qualified under an ideal scenario. 

So when murmurs of the WNIT’s interest in Cleveland State intensified during the week leading up to Selection Sunday (buoyed by computer rankings placing the Vikings in the field), the hangover from the conference title game loss to IUPUI disappeared and the excitement of possibility once again emerged with nothing to keep hopes in check. Nobody calls the WNIT “March Madness” to be sure, but it still offers a respectable-looking banner, along with possibly the chance to take down a high-major team.  

Alas, after a furious Sunday night hour spent maintaining an intimate relationship with a refresh button, the WNIT posted its field, including Horizon League teams Youngstown State and Green Bay, but not CSU. The 2021-22 Vikings were a better team with better results than the 2020-21 version, but they’d have to settle for the same postseason destination as last season, a tiny Kentucky gym and the championship of last resort. 

Nobody wants to defend a WBI title. So why is failing to defend one so upsetting? 

The result was so immediate that it stunned me for a bit. 

After a suspicious sore throat and a government test, I officially had COVID. A year too late to be deadly, two months too late to be fashionable, but just on time to cancel my trip to the WBI. The ides of March had passed two days prior, but my own assassin had paid a visit and I couldn’t stop staring at two red daggers sheathed in plastic.  

I went to a Thursday night game at UIC and made it to work the next day, I didn’t drink on New Year’s Eve so I could wake up early and get to Youngstown State, I drove through lunar hellscapes on the way back from Milwaukee and Oakland, and I hoped nobody noticed that my half day was really more like three quarters of a day when I fired up to Detroit Mercy on a Monday afternoon for a makeup game. I tried my best to clean up after my senior dog using only Motel 6 towels and toilet paper in Indy. I even outlined a plan to drive 20 hours away as someone fated to follow around a low-seeded WNIT team, had that reality come to pass. 

I did all of that only to be cut off like so many others on St. Patrick’s Day, three games short of attending and covering every Cleveland State game this season. I wasn’t too sick to travel, and in 2019 I would’ve thought nothing of doing so, but instead I was helplessly stapled to my couch. As with the Vikings, I was fated to spend the weekend somewhere I did not plan on being.

I thought a lot about Chris Kielsmeier during the tournament, for a couple of reasons.  

In those early, terrifying days of COVID, he was one of the first celebrities to get sick – it was Rudy Gobert, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, and Kielsmeier. That’s how I remember it anyway. The Vikings coach, who was hit with a severe case and hospitalized, was the one who made things local at a point when it was still possible to view the pandemic as New York City’s problem. 

I was extremely lucky to never have COVID symptoms or test positive until after I’d received three shots, despite attending live sporting events like it’s my life’s calling. So I tried to keep things in perspective.  

But probably more than that, I thought about his answer whenever the idea of a postseason tournament – any postseason tournament – comes up: “If there’s a game, just let us know when the ball’s tipped, and we’re gonna go play.” It’s an attitude phrased (okay, paraphrased) in a way that fits well with his demeanor, which involves simmering intensity on the court and often Iowa-tier folksiness off of it. Through two trips to the WBI and a healthy collection of games added at the last minute, the Vikings have certainly lived out the “anytime, anywhere” mantra over the last couple seasons. 

Of course, there’s going to play somewhere, and there’s going to play somewhere.  

Winning a tournament like the WBI is tough. It’s accepted that players sometimes don’t want to be there quite as much as coaches and administrators, and history is littered with juggernaut teams in one-bid leagues that were stunned in their conference tournament, then faded out of their postseason opportunity uneventfully.  

Then there were the 2020-21 Vikings, a team that lost in the Horizon League semifinals but went on to win the WBI – and celebrated the accomplishment right alongside the Cleveland State men’s team with their conference titles and NCAA Tournament bid. From their inclusion in things like the socially-distanced drive-through celebration on campus and the first pitches at a Lake County Captains game to the rings and t-shirts the team commissioned, there was tellingly nothing to separate the afterglow of the WBI title from the more prestigious postseason journey of the men. 

Pride after the fall requires presence beyond the physical sphere, a psychological re-framing of sorts. The past is the past, the loss to IUPUI and the WNIT snub may as well have never happened, the three games in front of you are the only ones that exist, and the trophy at stake is the most important one in the world. It’s one sports’ great lessons – wherever life has placed you in a given moment, you’d better be doing everything in your power to make that reality your best one.  

If you’re a basketball player, that means going to play, of course. If you’re a beat writer stuck at home, that might mean finding a new way to write a recap that isn’t a quote-free regurgitation of a game log that you can find in several places on the internet and trying some different things out on Twitter. Put in Iowa terms, the grass is greener where you water it. 

Vikings green? They sure tried. 

Destiny Leo was magnificent during the weekend, turning in an all-tournament team performance with 77 points over three games (including a career-high 35 in the championship game against Saint Mary’s) and drawing the awe of the tournament’s broadcast team for both her fearlessness and accuracy from long range. Brittni Moore had the best stretch of her college career while making tough, momentum-swinging plays at both ends of the court off the bench. Isabelle Gradwell was instrumental in CSU shaking off a slow start in the opener against Northeastern, while Izzy Geraci did the same in the semifinals against Nevada.  

CSU found its back against the wall at points in all three contests, never tighter than during the championship game against Saint Mary’s when the Vikings’ deficit settled in double-digits before the half, peaked at 17 late in the third quarter, and was still at 11 with 4:20 to go in the fourth. Leo, Moore, Gabriella Smith, and Amele Ngwafang instantly hit that gear reserved for the biggest moments and sparked a 12-3 run that only ended with 62 seconds remaining when a three pointer to take the most improbable of leads rimmed out. 

Cleveland State found some more games, showed up when the ball was tipped, and played as if the Clive M. Beck Center at Transylvania University was the Target Center in Minneapolis, the host venue for this year’s Final Four. But it wasn’t enough. 

And that’s why it’s upsetting. 

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