Third-quarter run propels Vikings to comfortable win in HLWBB opener

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In a season notable for, so far, contributions from a broad assortment of players, it was Cleveland State’s old standbys – and game patterns – that got things done in a 77-54 drubbing of Oakland to open the Horizon League schedule with a sixth straight victory on Friday night at the Wolstein Center.

Destiny Leo led the Vikings with 19 points, while Amele Ngwafang shook off a slow start to the season by adding 15 with 11 rebounds and pair of blocks. Gabriella Smith had a quietly efficient bounceback game as well, hitting for 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting.

For the fourth time in seven 2022-23 outings, CSU denied its opponent a lead at any point of the contest. However, things remained tight throughout most of the opening 20 minutes, save for a moment early in the second quarter when it appeared that the Vikings might sledgehammer their way to an imprecise but comfortable win. Oakland, paced by Sug Williams (11 points, four rebounds) and Linda Van Schaik (nine points, six rebounds), quickly closed the gap to three points late in the first half to momentarily turn away that thinking.

Cleveland State’s final possession before the break abruptly pivoted things back the other way. With five seconds to go, Deja Williams appeared to be in deep trouble, picking up her dribble under a swarm of black and gold defenders well outside of the three-point arc on the right side of the court. Somehow, Williams was able to heave the ball past a series of outstretched arms to a wide-open Brittni Moore in the left corner. Moore calmly connected to give CSU a six-point halftime lead that seemed like much more.

“It was a big momentum shot,” Ngwafang said. “Brittni can hit those, and Deja made a great pass. It turned us over into the next half and we took that same energy to the second half.”

After the half, Ngwafang and the Vikings defense officially turned the game into a rout, shutting out OU for the first six minutes of the third period (6:57 in total, counting the late stages of the second) and building a 15-0 run. That pushed the margin to 18, and the number wouldn’t dip below 14 for the remainder of the contest thanks, in part, to a miserable Oakland shooting effort that hit just one 13 field goals during the third quarter, one piece of a 25.8 percent rate for the game.

“We certainly can’t feel it coming, but we know we can do it at any point,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said of the outburst. “And it just fuels off of our defense. I thought we stood around defensively a lot tonight. I’m probably being hard on them because we got a huge win and we did it in dominating fashion down the stretch, but we only forced 12 turnovers. We need to turn teams over.”

Ngwafang scored seven points during the run, all from her preferred spots on the floor: two feet from the hole and the free throw line. She hit five of her seven free throw attempts and almost singlehandedly put the Grizzlies in foul trouble, drawing eight during the game to help both post players (Cam Grant) and stars (Brooke Daniels, Alexis Johnson) spend more time on the bench than OU head coach Jeff Tungate would have preferred.

“At halftime, the consensus was that we need to rebound. It was always going to be a ‘get the ball inside to the post’ or ‘get the ball inside by the drive’ kind of game, so that’s what we did,” Ngwafang said. “I know people are going to foul me, so I’m just trying to work on my free throws and not let that affect my overall game. We have so much talent, and when we have the right mindset, anything can happen.”

“We want to get the ball inside every night,” Kielsmeier added. “Whether it’s getting it off the bounce and trying to get to the free throw line, or trying to get our post players touches, we want to get the ball inside. At the half, they had scored 16 points in the paint and we had scored 12, so it was something we talked about, big.”

Though CSU was well on track for an easy win by the middle of the fourth quarter, that didn’t stop Leo from putting on a show for those who remained attentive. The reigning Horizon League Player of the Week buried three from beyond the arc – well beyond, in the case of the final shot – over a span of roughly 90 seconds, followed by a steal and a feed of Smith for a runout layup to peak the Vikings’ lead at 25 with 4:26 remaining.

“Destiny Leo is Destiny Leo,” Ngwafang marveled. “Destiny Leo is effective. Destiny Leo is smart with the ball. Destiny Leo is confident with the ball. She’s Destiny Leo, she can hit those shots with her eyes closed if she really wanted to.”

Cleveland State will close out its opening conference weekend on Sunday afternoon at 2:00 against Detroit Mercy before returning to non-league play with a pair of road games next week, against MAC foes Central Michigan and Akron.

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