Destiny Leo entered the media room after Cleveland State’s seventh straight win carrying her shoes in her right hand, while gliding across the tile in her socks.
“I just had to get them off my feet,” she explained.
A bit of mild foot discomfort was just about all that went wrong for Leo and the Vikings in an 86-30 throttling of Detroit Mercy on Sunday afternoon in the Wolstein Center, a result that elevated CSU to 7-1 overall and 2-0 in the Horizon League.
The Vikings’ 56-point margin of victory was the largest in program history against a Division I opponent, eclipsing CSU’s 93-39 destruction of then-conference-foe Butler on February 24, 2001. Including all games, Sunday was the third-largest rout in CSU history, trailing a 71-point win over Hiram in 1975-76 and a 110-41 blowout of Davis & Elkins in 2018-19, head coach Chris Kielsmeier’s first season in Cleveland.
“This team plays hard, this team is incredibly focused behind the scenes, and it just hadn’t been flowing the way we think it could be,” Kielsmeier said. “We’ve been challenging them to squeeze that gap down from potential into reality.”
“And they did it. We’ve hopefully turned the corner tonight. We had a lot of really good individual performances, as a team we just played awesome.”
Detroit Mercy’s chances in the game lasted less than three minutes, as the home side scored 17 straight points beginning at the 7:32 mark of the first quarter when Gabriella Smith hit a three pointer. Smith added a transition layup during the outburst after a Sara Guerreiro steal, while Leo contributed a pair of threes and a nice find for Jordana Reisma underneath.
By the end of the run CSU led 25-4, aggressively shoving aside the string of slow starts that had plagued the team all season.
“Since I’ve been here, that might have been one of our best starts,” Leo said. “That’s something we’ve been preaching, we need to start games better, and we definitely did tonight.”
It was just a warmup act.
Cleveland State led 27-8 at the end of the first quarter. The score ballooned to 47-13 at halftime after the Vikings scored the first nine and the last seven points of the second quarter, unofficially removing any drama related to wins and losses.
First-year head coach Kate Achter and the Titans, impressively, remained engaged in the game despite the numbers on the scoreboard and put together their best stretch of the game during the first half of the third quarter. With 3:41 left in the period, UDM had outscored the Vikings 15-6 since the break to close to within 53-28. Irene Murua’s team highs of ten points and five rebounds, as well as Akyia Baker’s eight points, led the way for the Mitten Staters.
“We started off [the second half] pretty slow, but we emphasized that we need to get back to how we started the game, and just put that into work,” Leo said.
Work, they did. As if on cue, Cleveland State snapped back to life following the third quarter media timeout and fired off a 31-0 run that didn’t end until only 2:25 remained in the fourth. In all, CSU outscored the Titans 33-2 over the last 13:41 of the game.
“Elite teams play to their own standard, and making that actually happen can be a challenge,” Kielsmeier said. “You’ve got to go out and play as if it’s a tight game, and sometimes just mentally, teams and players just have a challenge to do that.”
“You just have to compare yourself to what you know you’re capable of doing, and we talked about that in the huddle [during the timeout]. We had 20-some minutes of great basketball, but we came here for 40 minutes of great basketball, and they did that outside of that one run.”
Every player on the Vikings’ roster (save for injured Julia Hintz) played at least ten minutes, with each carrying an on-floor differential of plus-14 or greater. Leo’s 24 points on 9-for-13 shooting led the way, though Amele Ngwafang (nine points, seven rebounds), Reisma (eight points, three steals), Guerreiro (a team-best plus-38) and Shadiya Thomas (eight points, three rebounds) also had good statistical days. CSU forced 28 Detroit Mercy turnovers and held the Titans to 24.1 percent field goal shooting.
“This was a fun game, between being on the court, being on the bench, every part of it was fun,” Leo said. “It was fun to see everyone get buckets, it was fun to see everyone get stops.”
“All of these league games, we’re going to play them like our championship.”
CSU’s sweep of the opening weekend of the Horizon League schedule, including Friday’s win against Oakland and Sunday’s result, ended a run of five straight games in the Wolstein Center. The Vikings will now play six consecutively on the road, beginning with trips to MAC foes Central Michigan and Akron in the coming week. But right now, it doesn’t seem to matter where Cleveland State plays.
“This team loves to play,” Kielsmeier said. “They love each other, they’re so connected, so together. And when that ball tips, they’re pretty jacked up and excited to go out and play the game they love. We’ve created something here that is really special.”
“I believe that we’re just starting to scratch the surface with this team.”