Leo, defense lead Vikings past Robert Morris

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Destiny Leo scored Cleveland State’s first 15 points of the game, on the way to a game-high 30, as the Vikings rode a defense-fueled surge in the second and third quarters to send a Health & Hoops kids day crowd of 2,637 home from Wolstein Center happy on Thursday by closing out Robert Morris 61-43.

With the victory, the most recent in a modest three-game winning streak following a pair of weekend splits, CSU improved to 20-3 overall and 11-2 in the Horizon League. The Colonials, meanwhile, fell to 8-14 overall and 2-11 in the HL.

Leo’s heater helped smooth over a rough start by the Vikings – CSU committed a pair of offensive fouls and lost an additional turnover in their initial three possessions of the contest – to pull her team even at 17-17 by the quarter mark, negating Rebecca Dwomoh’s eight first-quarter points that pushed RMU to a series of small leads for most of the opening ten minutes.

It wasn’t anything flashy or novel from the junior superstar, her usual driving layups and haul of free throw attempts were the bulk of her output, though she capped off her 15-point run with a four-point play (a made three-pointer and an added free throw) to unofficially mark the game’s pivot point.

“We need to start games better,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We’ve got a very experienced starting lineup, kids that have played a ton of college basketball, and we need to be ready to play at a higher level.”

“They play a little bit of an aggressive defense,” Leo, one of those starters, added. “It’s a matter of getting past your one guy, then I feel like the basket is wide open. That was just how the game started out. I was getting open looks and they were finding me, and we were getting some good shots for myself. But we turned it up eventually and pulled away a little bit.”

Turned it up and pulled away, they did. After Leo held things together early, the Vikings assembled a 17-3 second quarter to head into the locker room ahead by a 34-20 count. A Natalie Johnson three-pointer with 3:01 remaining stood as the Colonials’ only points from RMU’s ten field goal attempts during the period, while CSU forced six turnovers (including four steals) leading to 13 points in the other direction. Amele Ngwafang became the focal point of Cleveland State’s offense, as she scored all ten of her points during the stanza, while adding ten rebounds over the course of the game.

“We didn’t play well offensively today,” Kielsmeier said. “Destiny had a great night, and we did some really good things as a team to get her shots, but we missed a lot of wide-open threes, missed some point-blank layups, missed some layups that there was some contact on and we have to finish through.”

“But you can’t control those things. You can control your effort, your attitude, what you put into it, and that’s a lot of [what defense is]. There’s a lot of execution to defense as well, but it all starts with your intensity and how much you’re putting into it, and that second quarter, we really defended. I thought that our pressure, what we put on the perimeter, really changed the game.”

The lead never dipped below 12 after halftime thanks largely to Brittni Moore (nine points, all in the second half), and an 11-0 run to close the third quarter made the result academic.

Leo’s 30-point outing was her third of the season, all coming in Cleveland State’s last five games, and the sixth of her three-year career, though the reigning Horizon League Player of the Week was dismissive of her recent hot streak on an individual level.

“I feel like as long as I can do what I can to help us play our best basketball, then that’s really the only thing that matters,” she said.

Additionally, the victory was Cleveland State’s 20th of the season, the third time in the last four years that the Vikings have eclipsed the traditional milestone for a successful college basketball season – heady stuff for a program that had a total of two 20-win campaigns in its history prior to Kielsmeier’s tenure, which began in 2018.

“We want 20 wins to be the basement of the program,” Kielsmeier said. “That’s the standard for us, we’re going to get to 20 wins every year. We may not win a championship, or get a lot more accomplished than that, we obviously want to, but the bottom end of it is that we’re going to get to 20 wins.”

“That’s saying a lot, because that’s really difficult to do.”

Kielsmeier and the Vikings will shoot for their 21st win on Saturday at 2:00 P.M. when Youngstown State, a team presently tied with CSU for first place in the conference, makes their annual visit to Cleveland.

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