An 18-0 run spanning nine minutes of the second and third quarters paired with a suffocating defensive effort to deliver Cleveland State’s fifth straight win, a dominating 64-40 result against St. Bonaventure in the finale of the Hampton Inn Cleveland Downtown Viking Invitational on Saturday.
In a pattern that’s repeated itself in more than one CSU game over the last couple seasons a tightly-played first quarter (buoyed largely by Amele Ngwafang, who scored six of the Vikings’ first eight points) gave way to an abrupt explosion in the second quarter that put the Wolstein Center’s tenants in command.
“We talked about it in the huddle at the end of the first quarter, we had another kind of sluggish start, and challenged them about it,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We’ve got to look at what we’re doing in pregame warmups, we’ve got to get out to better starts.”
Bench discussions aside, those bursts never seem to announce their arrival until they’re already in the front door. In this case, the Bonnies’ Nadechka Laccen knocked down a jumper with 5:58 remaining to make the score 19-16 in favor of CSU. The Vikings had led by between two and five points for most of the game to that point, and there was no indication whatsoever that SBU would not score again until Laccen’s layup with 6:57 left in the third quarter.
Officially, Destiny Leo started the run with a steal that she took to the bucket herself, but after a few empty possessions by both sides, things escalated out of St. Bonaventure’s control when sparkplug guard Deja Williams connected on a three pointer with 2:29 remaining to give CSU its biggest lead at the time, 24-16. Two possessions later, Gabriella Smith hit from deep, and that was immediately followed with another Williams triple to beat the halftime horn.
“Honestly, we have so much talent on this team that there’s no telling whose day it is,” Williams said. “Whoever’s open, they shoot the shot, and it goes in, we feel it on defense and it goes back to offense.”
“We can go on a run anytime, the way we defend, and our players know that,” Kielsmeier seconded. “That drives them. It’s something we talk about in the huddles a lot.”
Things continued after the break with the final seven points of the run, highlighted by a Brittni Moore three-point play. By the time the green wave had subsided, CSU had scored more points consecutively than the 16 that St. Bonaventure accumululated in the game to that point while building a 21-point advantage.
Leo led the Vikings with 11 points, though five others – Moore, Ngwafang, Smith, Williams, and Sara Guerreiro – were right behind her with seven or more.
Cleveland State’s defense was more than enough to make the surge hold up for the last 17 minutes of the contest.
During the run alone, the Vikings forced six turnovers, including steals by Leo, Ngwafang, and Guerreiro, while SBU went 0-for-7 from the floor during the stretch. The defensive numbers over the course of the game weren’t much worse: a 17-for-50 line from the floor (including 2-for-15 from three-point range), along with 20 Bonnies turnovers and 13 CSU steals. Leo and Smith led the way with three thefts each, and Ngwafang had two.
“Whatever they get, hopefully they really had to earn it, and we make it as hard as possible for them to get easy shots,” Kielsmeier said. “For the most part, we did a great job of that, we did a great job with [SBU leading scorer Maddie Dziezgowski], limited her to only four shots, she really didn’t have any opportunities to get her shot off, which was part of the scout.”
“Defense wins games, and that’s what I really value myself on,” Williams agreed. “We’re not worried about how many points we’re making, we’re trying to focus on our defensive rotation, just getting everything right.”
Though the inaugural Viking Invitational didn’t declare a champion, Saturday’s victory clinched a three-game sweep for the hosts over the rest of the field, as CSU took down Georgia State and Bellarmine on Wednesday and Friday. However, though the MTE format might give off a postseason feel in certain ways – tight scheduling, teams watching each other’s games, some semblance of stakes – the Vikings’ eyes remain squarely on the road ahead.
“It just felt like three good wins, to be honest, three hard-fought wins,” Williams said. “A long week that ended with a win, what more could you ask for? Every win counts.”
“Once we found our gear and kicked in, we didn’t stop the whole weekend.”
“These aren’t wins in March, but they are significant,” Kielsmeier added. “They’re not March wins, but they’re big wins and we just want to continue to build our resume and our players really understand that.”
Cleveland State will now take its 5-1 overall record into this season’s first weekend of Horizon League play, as the Vikings host Oakland on Friday at 7:00 p.m. and Detroit Mercy on Sunday at 2:00 p.m.