How tough was Cleveland State’s game at Robert Morris on Saturday afternoon? It forced the Vikings to abandon their standard 2-3 zone and shift into a man-to-man defense, that’s how tough.
For a team that generally plays their preferred zone for every second of every game, forcing such a change takes a bit of doing. But RMU did plenty during the first five minutes in Moon Township, PA, including scoring the contest’s first 12 points while holding the Vikings to 0-for-6 from the floor with four turnovers.
“They’re really well coached, and they execute really well,” Cleveland State head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “They’ve got a lot of tremendous toughness and grit, they understand schemes and what they’re supposed to be doing, and they want to close that back to the basket. It was hard for us.”
That meant some hasty adjustments on both ends of the floor, which eventually allowed CSU (13-1 overall, 4-0 Horizon League) to extend their program-record winning streak to 13 games with a tighter-than-the-score 70-52 victory over the Colonials (7-6 overall, 1-3 Horizon League).
The reconstituted defense certainly did its part, holding its opponent to just 13-for-58 (22.4 percent) from the floor and 1-for-14 (7.1 percent) from three-point range after the initial outburst. On the other side of the ball, the Vikings’ strategy became obvious: attack the Colonials in the paint with the goals of getting Destiny Leo to the free throw line while exploiting mismatches among the post players.
“We ran a lot of spread, we wanted to try to beat them off the bounce, kind of back cut underneath them, in some ways we don’t even use that offense,” Kielsmeier said. “So we have so many different ways to play, and some of that is dependent on who we’re playing.”
“Tonight, that’s the kind of defense they gave us. We want to get to the free throw line, we talk about it all the time. They weren’t calling a whole lot early, and then they called a lot late, so you gotta adjust.”
Leo wound up a spotless 13-for-13 from the line on the way to a game-high 21 points and an intimate familiarity with the floor at the UPMC Events Center – in all, CSU scored 31 points from the stripe in 42 tries – while freshman power forward Jordana Reisma bucketed a career-high 14 points and grabbed five rebounds. Reisma was instrumental in turning the game around, as she scored the Vikings’ first four points of the contest from nice feeds by Barbara Zieniewska and Deja Williams, as the visitors slowly undid the initial damage.
“She’s just got a ton of potential,” Kielsmeier said of his star rookie. “When you’re a freshman, and you’re playing on a team that’s chasing the things that we’re chasing, it’s very easy to look and act like a freshman. And she really hasn’t done that, at all.”
“We’re just trying to get her to get more confidence, because I don’t think she understands how good she is, I don’t think she understands how much potential she has. I hope a game like this will really jump-start her confidence, because in my opinion, she can consistently do this.”
As something of a side effect of the CSU attacks, Robert Morris’ interior players gradually found themselves in increasing amounts of foul trouble. Both Danielle Vuletich and Phoenix Gedeon would ultimately foul out of the game, while Paris Kirk had four fouls at the final buzzer. Gedeon, RMU’s leading scorer, still managed 14 points and eight rebounds, but only played 22 minutes. Simone Morris’ 15 points and nine rebounds led the way for Charlie Buscaglia’s squad.
The Vikings took the lead for good midway through the second quarter on another Williams-assisted layup by Reisma and, thanks to relentlessly hammering what was working regardless of tendencies, was never seriously threatened after the early part of the third quarter.
Williams rounded out Cleveland State’s double-digit scorers with ten points, while adding three assists and 32 minutes of her usual elite two-way point guard play.
“This team can win many different ways, and it was probably kind of an ugly win, but at the end of the game, you look at the score and see that’s what it was, you’re like wow, maybe it wasn’t ugly, we just found a way to win,” Kielsmeier said.
The Vikings will now return to the Wolstein Center for the first time since December 4th – the now-concluded road swing spanned six games – for a Friday meeting with travel partner Purdue Fort Wayne before a surprisingly-strong IUPUI team rounds out the weekend series on Sunday. But as much as anything, Kielsmeier is looking for a bit of stability after the typically-hectic holiday season.
“It’s been a long six days for everybody,” he said. “You come back from having all of that family time, and relaxation, and trying to get away from the game, and then you’re just on it. And then when you’re on the road, it just becomes a lot.”