In a season that’s already seen a fair bit of history for Cleveland State – a program record 12 straight wins, 1,000 career points for Destiny Leo, spotless runs through a pair of MTEs including one hosted at the Wolstein Center – the Vikings have always been a program more concerned with the present.
And presently, CSU might have officially announced itself as the Horizon League’s top contender, thanks to a 77-68 victory over Youngstown State on Thursday night at the Beeghly Center in front of a strident crowd of 2,786.
The result moved the Vikings to 12-1 overall and 3-0 in the young HL season, while defending conference co-champion YSU dropped to 8-4 overall and 2-1 in league play.
As much as anything, the meeting was a contrast of styles, between the Penguins’ half-court-oriented three-point barrage and Cleveland State’s more aggressive transition-based game. And halfway through the contest, YSU’s was decidedly winning out. John Barnes’ charges connected at a 7-for-19 clip from deep in the opening 20 minutes, led by a pair of bombs each from Megan Callahan and Shay-Lee Kirby.
“We want to make sure they’re defended, and we made some mistakes,” CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We left them open way more than we wanted to, we’ve just gotta go to work on that, because teams have been firing a lot of threes on us. A lot of people think when you run zone all the time you’re vulnerable from the perimeter, we don’t think that way at all.”
Whether due to the law of averages or sturdier defending by Kielsmeier’s roster, the Penguins cooled off a bit in the second half, posting a 4-for-18 line. That subtle shift helped the Vikings flip the course of the game after YSU outscored their visitors 20-8 in the second quarter and took a 35-31 lead into halftime.
As usual, Leo played a significant role as well.
Leo was held off of the scoresheet for a lot of the game, her shots limited by the outstanding on-ball defense of Penguins stars Mady Aulbach and, after Aulbach picked up her second foul, Malia Magestro. The Vikings star had just four points with 3:14 left in the third quarter, and her team trailed 45-42. Just 2:31 of game time later, she had 14, thanks largely to a pair of three pointers, one of which gave her team the lead for good. She even swatted away a Dena Jarrells attempt from beyond the arc for good measure.
By the end of the period, Cleveland State led 58-53 largely thanks to their sniper’s explosion.
“Destiny knows what she’s going to get defensively every night,” Kielsmeier said. “She really knows what she’s going to get against Youngstown. For her to, within those opportunities, you can count them on one hand, and the kid just is so big in those moments. You get hounded all night, you finally get a wide-open look, it can be tough to hit that shot. Not for Destiny Leo.”
“Certainly that was a big stretch of the game, both teams were back and forth, and we were kind of down a little bit. We went on that run, and that kind of put us in the lead, and we were able to execute well in the fourth quarter.”
Another highly-anticipated part of the clash, one that never fully materialized thanks to foul trouble, was the post battle between programs that take a lot of pride in the position. YSU’s conference player of the year candidate, Lilly Ritz, managed her standard double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds, but gigantic Tennessee transfer Emily Saunders – who presented loads of matchup issues while in the game – participated for just 5:20 thanks to four fouls.
On the other side, CSU’s Amele Ngwafang collected two fouls in the first two minutes of the game and sat for the remainder of the first half. Aminata Ly and Jordana Reisma filled in capably, though Ly ended up with two first-half fouls as well. Ngwafang bounced back with a huge third quarter, however, keeping the Vikings afloat prior to Leo’s onslaught. The power forward wound up with 14 points and nine rebounds, despite only playing for 15 minutes.
“We’ve talked to [Ngwafang] a lot about her consistency, she’s played really well for us at times, and at other times she hasn’t played up to her potential. She knows that, and she didn’t necessarily have the best game tonight, but boy she played hard. She rebounded like a monster, had some big putbacks when we needed them.”
“Mel just finds ways to make plays.”
Deja Williams and Brittni Moore rounded out the Vikings’ double-digit scorers with 15 and 11 points, respectively. Williams hit her usual buzzer-beating three to end the first quarter and became her team’s go-to free throw shooter while trying to lock down the result, as she connected on all six of her attempts from the line over the game’s final 61 seconds.
“We’re 3-0 and first in the league,” Kielsmeier observed. “It’s all about the conference championship race now. Every game, for every team in the Horizon League, every night that they take the floor has a lot at stake. This team understands that really well, long before the ball gets tipped.”
“They won this game from the way they acted from a physical and mental standpoint from the time we left Vegas to the time we won this game. We didn’t have to run extra on Monday, because everyone did what we asked them to do [over the holiday break], and it showed.”
The Vikings will finish their first road swing of the conference season on Saturday at Robert Morris, as CSU attempts to complete a weekend sweep and fully reverse the result of one of last year’s low points, a pair of losses on the same trip. But that’s history as well, and the 2022-23 edition of the squad is busy with their own story.
“This is a team that’s trying to create their own legacy and create their own special accomplishments,” Kielsmeier said. “Tonight, we broke the school win record [that we set] three years ago when we won 11 in a row. So over the last three years, we’ve had an 11-game winning streak and a 12-game winning streak. That’s some special stuff that’s never been done in the history of this school.”