In a battle of two Horizon League contenders with player of the year candidates, an undersized yet powerful post player who has never won a season-long conference award – but has a rare amount of drive to taste team success – stole the show.
Amele Ngwafang scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds for her 18th career double-double, while helping hold Youngstown State star Lilly Ritz to a foul-plagued six points and seven rebounds, as Cleveland State buried Youngstown State 81-48 on Saturday afternoon in the Wolstein Center.
The victory moved the Vikings to 21-3 overall and 12-2 in the conference, good for sole possession of first place (though 11-2 Green Bay plays on Sunday with a chance to match that 12-2 mark). Youngstown State, meanwhile, dropped to 10-4 in league play. With just six regular season HL games remaining for both teams, the result was a devastating blow to the Penguins’ chances of repeating as regular season champions and a significant boost to CSU’s odds of gathering the program’s first banner of that type.
“Mel’s been outspoken all year that she came back to win a championship,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “To her credit, it was never just one championship, she’s stated multiple times, out loud, that a regular-season championship is really important to her.”
“She has the ability to impact the game in many different ways outside of scoring, and that’s when you can be defined as a complete basketball player. And Mel is a complete basketball player.”
CSU served notice of what was to come with a game-opening 13-1 run highlighted by six Brittni Moore points and a Gabriella Smith three, and following some back-and-forth scoreboard shoving, that 12-point spread remained the margin at halftime.
However, things veered decisively in the Vikings’ direction early in the third quarter when Ritz took her third and fourth fouls on consecutive Cleveland State possessions, both while defending Ngwafang.
“This was one of my better games for sure,” Ngwafang said. “Lilly Ritz is one of the best post players in the conference, so I was just trying to match the energy that she’s had all year. Our focus was being smarter, Coach K said that it was going to be a chess match, and just focusing on defense and knowing where she’s going to catch the ball, and being aggressive on offense and defense.”
“We try to play aggressively to the basket, we practice that every day, aggressive drives to the basket,” she added. “I would’ve liked to finish through contact a little more, but those fouls were a big deal to have one of their best players on the bench, that definitely helped us. But getting fouled is not unusual, especially with how we practice.”
“I see Mel do this at practice, and I know what she’s capable of, and I’m happy she can show other people what she can do,” teammate Destiny Leo added. “This is definitely the game for her to step up, and she really took advantage of it, so I’m proud of her for that.”
At the 5:53 mark of the period Emily Saunders, a Tennessee transfer who is Ritz’s 6-foot-6 rotation mate, earned her fourth foul on a Leo drive to the hoop, and from that point forward, the tracks down the middle of the floor were largely unobstructed.
Leo, who ranks third nationally with conversions on 94.3 percent of her free throws, connected on both of her subsequent tosses, part of a 12-for-12 line from the stripe that constituted most of her 18 points. She drew eight fouls while Ngwafang attracted seven whistles, well over half of the 24 total infractions committed by YSU.
“If I can impact the game from the free throw line, that’s certainly something that I’m willing to do,” the junior guard said.
Almost immediately after Saunders’ fourth infraction, the Vikings went on a 21-2 run that steered an already-decisive lead into laugher territory. While Ngwafang and Leo put the Vikings in position to go for the kill, Moore (14 points, eight rebounds), Smith (11 points, five rebounds, three steals), and Deja Williams (six points) largely finished things off.
Saunders and Dena Jarrells led the Penguins with eight points each, with Jarrells’ two first-quarter three pointers standing as an early pivot point. However YSU, a team that heavily relies on threes, was just 4-for-32 from behind the arc overall.
“I think a lot of their three-balls were pretty deep,” Leo said. “With the defense that we were playing, we just didn’t want to give up any easy threes, we knew that they were going to shoot threes, but making it more of a difficult shot definitely helped bring that percentage down.”
“These are our favorite games of the year, these are our toughest games of the year. We always get Youngstown’s best. We just played good basketball tonight, we pulled away from them in that third quarter, and we just kept going.”
“Our defense was outstanding today,” Kielsmeier added. “This was the best defensive game that we’ve played this year, I think. We put in a lot of effort and were really active off the ball.”
Cleveland State will close non-conference play on Tuesday at home against Chicago State, though at this juncture the team’s clear emphasis is the three remaining Horizon League weekends: away against IUPUI and Purdue Fort Wayne, at home against Northern Kentucky and Wright State, and then one final road trip to Green Bay and Milwaukee. Kielsmeier is well aware of the history attached to success over the closing stretch.
“Every opportunity we have to take the floor the rest of the year is a special one, and let’s make the most of it,” he said. “Be ready to go, mentally and physically.”
“This team doesn’t surprise me. They’re special. I’ve known it all year, I’ve said it all year. What we do is really hard, what they do is really hard to be locked in mentally and physically at your best every single day.”