Vikings take Milwaukee’s best, but surge to 16th straight win in the second half

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In outward appearances, Cleveland State’s 81-50 victory over Milwaukee on Thursday night at the Wolstein Center wasn’t the upset of DePaul, the road rivalry win over Youngstown State, the program-record beatdown of Detroit Mercy, or even the unexpectedly easy blowout of IUPUI. But it still had its own bit of notability to offer CSU’s 16-1 (7-0 Horizon League) record and program-record 16-game winning streak.

That significance starts with the fact that, for two quarters, Milwaukee shut the Vikings down in a way entirely foreign to CSU’s last 16 opponents.

That’s not uncommon for the Kyle Rechlicz-led Panthers (6-9, 4-3 Horizon League), as the 2021 conference regular season champions have a long track record of excellence in things coaches love: defense, ball sharing, and free throws. This season alone, they had used their system to down Green Bay in one of the HL’s biggest stunners so far, show respectably against Big Ten teams Wisconsin and Minnesota, and hold UDM and Oakland to 29 and 49 points in a sweep of the Michigan-based teams two weeks ago. For a while, they used it to great effect in confounding the Vikings too, holding CSU to a tenuous 29-26 edge while trotting back towards the locker room.  

“They’re really good defensively around the basket,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “They’re really well coached, it’s hard to get them out of position, and at times you’ve gotta try to score through [Megan Walstad and Emma Wittmershaus], and they’re 6-2, 6-3.”

“You know every year that Milwaukee’s going to scheme you really well, and personnel you well, and [Rechlicz] has some young backcourt players that are still trying to learn their system. They’re going to be really good as they continue to grow.”

On the other end, Walstad scored ten first-half points while slipping behind Cleveland State’s matchup zone to hit five of her six shot attempts, while helping to create openings for cutters Kendall Nead (six points) and Anna Lutz (six points). Brittni Moore and Gabriella Smith were largely responsible for the home team’s ability to keep pace, but Milwaukee held Vikings stars Destiny Leo and Amele Ngwafang to a combined five points on 1-for-12 shooting over the first two quarters (and those numbers were three and 0-for-11 before a buzzer-beating layup by Leo to close the half).

“At the beginning of the game they were really physical and we were not, so that made the difference in the first two quarters,” senior guard Carmen Villalobos said.

Then Cleveland State, after spraying ketchup on themselves for most of the first half, picked some gunk off the nozzle and shot as well as ever over the final two quarters.

After hitting a pedestrian 35.5 percent of their field goals in the opening half, the Vikings connected at a 61.3 percent clip over the remainder of the game, including an uncharacteristically-excellent 6-for-7 on three-point tries. Ngwafang came alive in the third quarter and was arguably the single biggest reason CSU began to pull away, as the reigning conference player of the week scored 11 of her team’s 28 points in the frame and finished the game with 14 points and ten rebounds.

“She got some decent looks in the first half, they were just really physical with her, and probably more physical than what she’s seen lately, and I think that probably rattled her in the first half,” Kielsmeier said. “To me, in the second half, Mel’s motor was as high as it could be, and that kid played as hard as you can play, on both ends of the floor.”

“Mel under control is a great player,” Villalobos confirmed. “She’s giving us a lot and she’s helping us everywhere.”

Villalobos contributed plenty to the third quarter getaway as well, knocking down a pair of three-pointers two minutes apart, bookending an 8-0 CSU run that took the score from 44-37 to 52-37 and unofficially signaling a shift in the contest’s course.

“The key is to keep working and keep working and getting up shots before the game every day” she said of her opportunity to change the game. “At the end of the work, it’s going to be seen, for everyone.”

“Every game, we show that we can shoot the ball well. At the beginning of the game, we didn’t have that many shots made, but we kept working.”

A pair of threes by star freshman point guard Kamy Peppler, along with one by grad student Jessi Giles, kept the Panthers above water for a bit, but only temporarily, thanks in part to the way the Vikings defended inside of the arc. Walstad, a first-team all-conference selection in both 2021 and 2022, was shut out in the second half while her imposing post partner, Wittmershaus, didn’t score all evening. The two combined for ten rebounds, under their season average. CSU’s ever-aggressive defense grabbed 12 steals, led by Deja Williams’ four and Smith’s three.

Williams also scored 12 points while Smith added nine, seven of which came in the first half while much of the rest of the offense struggled. All of that added up to a Cleveland State lead that peaked at 37 midway through fourth quarter before settling into a 52-24 score over the second half and a 31-point win – a result perhaps as stunning as any during the 2022-23 season, given the Hydrox-like nature of the first half.

“At times, we’ve made this look easy, and it’s not easy in any way,” Kielsmeier said. “And when you get faced with some adversity, maybe some adversity that you caused yourself, how are you going to respond? And we responded in an outstanding way.”

“At the end, the message is the same every game,” Villalobos added. “Game by game, we keep focus, we keep working as a team, and it’s just the next game in the schedule.”

The next game in Cleveland State’s schedule is among the Vikings’ biggest contests to date, a rematch of last season’s Horizon League semifinal with Green Bay. The Phoenix, 13-3 overall and perhaps CSU’s chief threat for the conference title this year, will bring its own ten-game winning streak into the Wolstein Center on Saturday at 2:00 P.M.

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