Destiny Leo’s near-half-court heave helped stave off a late Purdue Fort Wayne rally, as Cleveland State held off the charging Mastodons 73-63 at the Hilliard Gates Sports Center on Monday night.
With the victory, Cleveland State improved to 24-3 (14-2 Horizon League) and clinched a home game in the conference tournament quarterfinals on March 2nd, while staying in a dead heat with Green Bay for first place in the standings. Purdue Fort Wayne, now 10-16 (7-9 HL), remains in sole possession of sixth, a rank that would give the Dons a home game against the 11th-place squad in the first round and (if chalk holds) a trip to play the third seed in the quarterfinals.
Leo’s heroics, which represented three of her game-high 31 points, came just after Aubrey Stupp trimmed what had been a 19-point Viking advantage entering the fourth quarter to 66-58 with 2:01 remaining on a layup through a foul. At that point, PFW had managed 20 points in the first eight minutes of the frame, thanks largely to a pressure defense that produced five Cleveland State turnovers, leading to half of the Mastodons’ output. Cleveland-area native Shayla Sellers took center stage during the surge, with 13 of her 21 points dropping during the final period.
On the CSU possession after Stupp’s score, Gabriella Smith was fouled but couldn’t connect on either of her free throws. However, Vikings forward Brittni Moore grabbed the rebound of the second miss, and though her eventual contested attempt didn’t reach the rim, Amele Ngwafang collected the loose ball and fired it out to Smith on the wing. Smith quickly swung it up top to Leo who, with the shot clock winding down, was forced to fire away from the base of the tusk on PFW’s center court logo. As the high-pitched buzzer marking the shot clock’s expiration sounded, Leo’s try splashed through to give her team a suddenly-comfortable 11-point lead with 1:27 to go.
“I don’t think she does anything that surprises me anymore, Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “She is just a special player, that is going to help her team win games no matter what that means she needs to do. Destiny really just wants to see the team succeed, and that could mean needing different things on different nights from her, but she is always ready to do what is asked of her, no matter what that is.”
“We might’ve been able to play out the rest of the game without fouling so early [had Leo missed her shot],” Marchesano lamented. “But Destiny Leo’s phenomenal, she’s so fun to watch. I’m proud that she’s in the Horizon League, it’s cool to have a kid like that to cheer for when she’s not playing you, and when she is, it sucks.”
Cleveland State built its initial advantage largely on the backs of its game starters (Leo, Moore, Ngwafang, Smith and Barbara Zieniewska), who combined for 67 of the Vikings’ 73 points and 42 of CSU’s 52 total rebounds. That represents something of a departure for a team that typically receives upwards of 20 points per game from its reserves. The Vikings’ massive rebounding advantage – the Dons ended up with just 30 – also proved vital on a night when two of CSU’s usual defensive staples, steals and the points resulting from them, weren’t firing. In fact, CSU made just one steal all game long, a Smith theft early in the first quarter. The visitors did manage to hold Purdue Fort Wayne to 4-for-22 from three-point range, after the Mastodons connected at an 11-for-33 clip at the Wolstein Center on January 6th.
“We couldn’t get a rebound to save our lives tonight,” Marchesano said. “Fifty-two to thirty on the boards, that’s a huge disparity and unfortunately the story of the game. We talk a lot about free throw rebounds, we have four people to their two [lined up alongside the paint], and I think they probably got more free throw rebounds than we did.”
“We’re clearly undersized, less athletic, but huge credit to Cleveland State, they’re such a solid, well-put-together team. They have Power Five athleticism.”
Ngwafang grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds to lead the Vikings, while Moore complimented her 12 points with 13 boards. Zieniewska also offered 12 points, alongside eight rebounds.
A 10-2 second quarter run, punctuated by a sequence where Smith and Leo combined to give the Vikings five points on one possession (another play involving a free throw rebound, foreshadowing the buildup to Leo’s big shot), helped push the CSU lead into double digits for the first time, while runs of 7-0 and 9-1 during the third period nearly doubled the ten-point halftime edge heading into the fourth quarter.
In contrast to their guests, depth nearly carried the day for the Mastodons. Jazzlyn Linbo, PFW’s only true heavy-usage post player, was plagued by whistles all evening, eventually fouling out after playing fewer than 13 minutes. However, 5-11 Stupp filled in admirably, scoring 12 points and grabbing seven rebounds, while also drawing seven CSU fouls. Sylare Starks, Destinee Marshall and Riley Ott also saw plenty of action after Marchesano took things up-tempo.
“I’m really proud of where we’re at, and it’s about us,” Stupp said. “Coach says that all the time. Tonight we didn’t get the win like we wanted, but we improved so much and we’re getting there, we’re almost there.”
With the Vikings’ 24th win of the season – a figure that establishes a new program record, eclipsing the 23 of 1982-83 and 2021-22 – now secured, Cleveland State will enter the home stretch of the regular season in a drag race with Green Bay for the Horizon League’s regular season title. Both teams have four games remaining in the regular season, with CSU closing its home slate with Northern Kentucky and Wright State this week, before heading to Wisconsin for a showdown with the Phoenix on February 23rd and a trap game against Milwaukee two days later.
“Before we left on this road trip, we talked about how this was going to be a ten-day stretch where we were going to be together every single day,” Kielsmeier said. “And we focused on chopping it into two five-day segments, the first of which was this road trip to IUPUI and Purdue Fort Wayne.”
“We were able to complete the first segment with a pair of hard-fought wins, and now as we transition into the second segment, it’s important that we mentally and physically get back into a routine. Now that we will be back in the Wolstein for the next part of this stretch, hopefully we can make it as normal as possible as we move forward and look to keep our focus and composure as we close out the next part of this stretch.”