Is there such a thing as a bad 18-point win?
It’s a ludicrous question in most cases, but for a Cleveland State team that won its 14th straight game on Friday in the Wolstein Center, by defeating Purdue Fort Wayne 74-56 to improve to 14-1 overall and 5-0 in the Horizon League, it felt like it made sense.
“It’s just such a weird thing,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said, before taking responsibility for a deceptively up-and-down contest. “I just gotta relax and have more fun with them, because I don’t know that I did that enough tonight.”
“At times, we played some of the best basketball we’ve played all year. At other times, we played some of the worst basketball we’ve played all year. We’ve gotta find a level of consistency and really try to bottle up that.”
The three-act game began when, largely behind Amele Ngwafang’s 16 points and 15 rebounds, the Vikings scored the first 11 points of the game and shot out to a lead that eventually touched 30 points late in the second quarter. CSU forced nine turnovers in the first quarter alone, and 14 in the first half, leading to plenty of transition opportunities for the likes of Destiny Leo, who tied Ngwafang’s team-high scoring output with 16 points of her own and added four steals.
“I think it was really important that we got off to a good start,” Leo said. “Starting good is something that we try to do every game. “We were turning them over, we were finishing in transition, we were sharing the ball.”
While Leo was honored for her 1,000th career point (a milestone she reached last month) before the game, the junior from Willowick, OH is hardly finished running down historic numbers. Six of Leo’s points on Friday came through a pair of three pointers, which gave her 163 made triples in her collegiate career. That total is tied for seventh in Vikings history with Kailey Klein, the star of Cleveland State’s 2008 and 2010 NCAA Tournament teams whose number 23 is the only one that the program has retired.
It’s generally a given that much of Leo’s scoring output also comes from a few feet inside the three-point arc, on her near-automatic free throws. It’s less obvious in the case of Ngwafang, a career 55 percent shooter from the line who led the country in free throw attempts per 40 minutes last season and ranks 15th so far this year.
Neverthess, the senior power forward looked almost Leo-esque in connecting on eight of her ten attempts from the line, a major factor in her third double-double of the season and the 14th of her career.
“What was she tonight? Eighty percent? Yessir!” Leo exclaimed. “Mel knew that to be a great player in our league, her free throws were going to be something that was going to have to work on, and obviously you can see that she has been, and I’m proud of her for that.”
“I work hard on my free throws, I try to shoot a lot,” Ngwafang added. “Sometimes it doesn’t work in my favor, sometimes it does, today it worked in my favor.”
On the other side of things, Ngwafang’s ten drawn fouls played a significant role in a crippling level of foul trouble for a third straight CSU opponent. In the case of Purdue Fort Wayne, the victim was starting forward Jazzlyn Linbo, one of only three frontcourt players on the Mastodons’ roster, who fouled out after playing for just 6:15.
“We try to play really hard,” Ngwafang said. “And I wouldn’t say it’s our main goal [to get players in foul trouble], but if their main post player gets in foul trouble the game can come more fluid to us.”
However, just when the Vikings looked on track to register one of their most impressive results of an impressive season, Purdue Fort Wayne got hot from three-point range, an area of the floor that the Mastodons test more than all but three teams nationally. Immediately after Gabriella Smith’s trey gave CSU a 38-8 lead three minutes before halftime, Sylare Starks answered to make it 31-11. Then Alaina Diaz made it 39-14. Then Starks, who led her team with 12 points, all on threes, made it 39-17 at the half.
The trend continued into the third quarter, with Ryin Ott, Destinee Marshall, and Aubrey Stupp also getting involved in the long-range barrage. Almost exactly one quarter after they were down by 30, PFW had scraped within 49-36 on a Stupp and-one.
“I think that we dug ourselves into a little bit of a hole in the second and third quarters so that run we went on at the beginning didn’t mean as much,” Leo said. “We started giving them some open looks and stopped turning them over, and I think that’s kind of what stopped our run.”
Just as Starks quickly answered Smith to signal a shift in the game, Leo’s three immediately answering Stupp seemed to reverse the trend. While the Vikings never restored their large early advantage, they shut out Purdue Fort Wayne for a 4:35 stretch spanning the third and fourth quarters, then again for a 3:04 period late in the fourth quarter. On the other side of the ball, Brittni Moore scored ten of her 14 points in the fourth quarter to help keep the Dons at arm’s length the rest of the way.
“I would just say that we’re focused,” Leo said. “Even when stuff doesn’t go our way, we know that we need to turn it around, and it’s easy for us to identify the things that are [going wrong] so it’s easy for us to kind of change that.”
“Athletics is a crazy thing,” Kielsmeier added. “You can teeter one way or the other and be completely locked into the moment, and ready to chase everything you want, and then you can slide out of it really easily and you can’t even realize it. I’ve been fortunate to coach a lot of great teams, so I feel like I can be really honest with them and transparent with them, and I thought they were off a little bit this week. Then they went out and went 38-8 in the first 15 minutes, so it shows what the hell I know.”
“But you just gotta trust this team, you just gotta get out of their way. They’re really focused on the mission and the task at hand.”
Cleveland State will wrap up its second home weekend of the Horizon League season on Sunday against a surprising IUPUI squad, with the opening tip scheduled for 2:00 P.M.