Cleveland State notched one of the biggest wins in program history on November 15th, taking down DePaul in overtime by a 90-83 count. So when – eight days later, thanks to the weather cancellation of a game scheduled at Niagara – the Vikings muddled through a surprisingly close 57-53 victory over Georgia State at the Wolstein Center in the opener of the Hampton Inn Cleveland Downtown Viking Invitational on Wednesday, CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier tried to keep things in perspective.
“Our players are really focused and they’re effort’s good, we’re just out of sync offensively, and it showed all night long,” he said. “Some of them are just open shots. Sometimes you lack a little bit of confidence, especially if you’re not hitting those shots. We’re defending, we’re playing hard, we’re doing all of the things we can control.”
“If it’s a good shot, let it fly. We didn’t start very well with making shots, a couple of missed shots and then they became pretty passive and I don’t want to see that. You’re a good player, I don’t care if you missed the last three, four shots, let it fly and believe in yourself. We had a lot of hesitancy with that, you could see it.”
One player who doesn’t need to be told twice to shoot the ball, of course, is Vikings leading scorer Destiny Leo. Though she hit an early three-pointer to give her team a 7-2 lead, the junior guard started 1-for-6 from behind the arc and ended up on the bench for a stretch. She re-entered a couple minutes later no less shy, and by halftime she was 5-for-11 from the floor, including 4-for-10 from three, well on the way to an eventual a game-high 23 points.
“I’ve always been told ‘shoot ‘til you’re on, shoot ‘til you’re off,’” Leo said. “As soon as I went to the bench, everyone was telling me to keep shooting, it’s going to fall at some point.”
CSU, which fired at a 33.9 percent clip for the game as a team but never trailed in the contest, used Leo’s spurt to eventually push their advantage to 12 points, 32-20, by halftime, and the margin peaked at 14 points four minutes into the third quarter. But a game that often looked like an eventual ugly, but comfortable, Vikings win took a significant turn from that point.
The Panthers, behind 16 points and seven rebounds by Deasia Merrill, another 14 with seven boards by Zay Dyer and helped along by a plague of CSU miscues, chipped away at their deficit and had things down to five by the end of the third quarter. The gap hovered between four and eight points for a while after that but by the late stages of the game, things had gotten even more serious, with a Dyer layup following a Mikyla Tolivert three and trimming the score to 54-53 with 41 seconds to go.
Brittni Moore, as she often does, had the right answer for the situation. The athletic forward ended arguably the most important possession of the game by driving to the bucket, drawing a foul, and burying both free throws with 30 seconds to go. Deja Williams followed that up with a backcourt interception, leading to another Moore free throw to seal the contest.
Moore finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, and a million little plays that made big differences in a close game. Just within the last five minutes, in addition to the clinching points, the UT Martin transfer created a turnover when GSU had possession after Tolivert’s three made it a one-shot game. She also forced a jump ball after a Leo miss to help CSU keep possession with just over four minutes to play.
“Brittni’s everything,” Leo said afterwards. “Brittni brings energy, she brings positivity, she brings those athletic plays. Brittni does a lot of stuff that I think people might not notice sometimes. She can jump out the gym, she can finish, she can get rebounds. She’s smart, she makes smart plays.”
Cleveland State, now 3-1 overall, will continue play at their home multi-team event on Friday against Bellarmine, before wrapping things up on Saturday versus St. Bonaventure. Kielsmeier undoubtedly hopes that his team can work out their issues during the course of the weekend before dipping into the Horizon League schedule.
“Anytime you’re going to do anything special in life, you’re going to go through a lot of adversity, end of story,” he said.
“We’ve gotta work ourselves out of it. We’ve got really good players, go play.”