As the saying goes, practice doesn’t make perfect – perfect practice makes perfect. And Cleveland State could not have practiced more perfectly ahead of its 57-56 win over Northern Kentucky on Thursday night at the Wolstein Center since, as it turned out, the play the Vikings used to end shootaround that morning ultimately decided the game.
The play went something like this: with 8.4 seconds to go and CSU trailing by a point, Barbara Zieniewska inbounded from the sideline to Vikings star Destiny Leo. Leo then rolled to the right, around a screen set by Jordana Reisma, and drove to the basket, where she was fouled by pursuing Norse forward Emmy Souder. The 91.9 percent free throw shooter then stepped to the line and sank both of her attempts for the contest’s final margin.
The victory, Cleveland State’s eighth in a row, improved the Vikings’ record to 25-3 overall and a first-place-worthy 15-2 in the Horizon League. NKU, which is battling to secure the first-round conference tournament bye that comes with a fourth or fifth-place finish, is now 15-11 overall and 9-8 in the HL.
“She just had to go make a play, and the way they defended her, they rushed at her trying to come off that ball screen, trying to prevent her from shooting the three, and that opened up the lane down to the basket,” CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier said.
“That’s a huge offensive read, because you can come off that ball screen and get antsy and want to shoot it, because that’s what she does is shoot and score. But she had to stay composed and be able to attack down, and then she had to step up there and hit two free throws.”
“A lot of times when I come off a ball screen they’re hedging and bringing that five out to my hip. Honestly, sometimes it’s easier to attack that five’s hip downhill. It’s something they were doing to me all game,” Leo explained, before admitting that she wasn’t positive that she’d draw a foul at the end of a loosely-officiated game.
Following Leo’s free throws, NKU still had one final try with 4.4 seconds remaining. However, after Kailee Davis inbounded and received it back from Lindsey Duvall, Zieniewska instinctively peeled away from Norse guard Ivy Turner to double team Davis. The 5-foot-2 ballhandler then tried to either pass over the 6-foot-0 defender, towards the freshly-open Turner in the corner, or shoot it herself, but Zieniewska smothered the attempt to secure the win.
“At the timeout, Coach K said to have the clock in your head,” Zieniewska said. “They passed it on the top, and I knew if [Davis] got the ball back, she’d need to shoot because [the clock] was going down. So I went there to try to block a shot, and thankfully I blocked it.”
“It’s four seconds,” Kielsmeier added, explaining his timeout instruction. “You get two dribbles, one quick snap pass, and it’s gotta go up. For them to go out and execute that is a more difficult thing to do than say. But for three years, Barb has done everything this program needs to win games, end of story.”
“These two both,” he continued, gesturing towards his end-of-the-contest stars, “they’re so smart with the game. It’s hard to put into words, because their IQ, basketball-wise, is off the charts. They’re big-time future coaches someday, if that’s what they want to do.”
Those final moments were a fitting wrap-up to a four-minute stretch filled with pivotal plays, just enough of which went in Cleveland State’s favor.
Duvall gave NKU a 53-50 lead at the free throw line with 3:35 to go, after Deja Williams was called for a foul that caused the home bench to scream for a tie-up instead. The Norse had the chance to pull in front by two possessions thanks to a subsequent steal by the former five-star Louisville recruit, but Leo blocked Turner’s three-point attempt from the top of the arc and ripped the ball away. That next Vikings possession saw offensive rebounds by Reisma, Brittni Moore and Zieniewska, with the third in the sequence leading to a quick pass outside and a three-pointer by Leo to tie the game.
The ensuing Norse possession ended in a shot clock violation when a review found that the counter was mistakenly reset after tries by Duvall and Souder failed to touch the rim, and Reisma then stepped around Souder to give the Vikings a 55-53 lead. Davis momentarily became a hero when she answered with a three to put NKU back ahead with 8.4 seconds to go, though it was ultimately just prelude to Leo’s ascension to headliner status.
“Obviously we’ve been in that position before after they hit that three, but this time we were just able to grind it out,” Leo said, alluding to a decisive three-pointer by the Norse’s Kennedy Igo with four seconds remaining on January 22nd in Highland Heights, KY, when NKU defeated Cleveland State 73-69.
“We prepare and make plans for everything,” Kielsmeier added. “Sometimes they work out, sometimes you get them right. I didn’t at Northern Kentucky, I’m disappointed in myself with it. Tonight we got it right because ultimately players made plays.”
For the majority of the contest, events frequently tracked the halting first meeting of the season between the teams that both Leo and Kielsmeier referenced.
With 3:08 remaining in the first quarter, a Zieniewska three that touched every inch of the rim before dropping gave the Vikings an 18-8 lead. CSU then went nearly an entire quarter – nine minutes, 18 seconds – before its next field goal, and the Norse used the resulting 13-1 run to take a 21-19 lead. The home team eventually muddled its way into a 26-25 halftime advantage, though NKU surged ahead 42-33 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Duvall finished with a game-high 27 points for Northern Kentucky, while Tayah Irvin spelled a foul-prone Souder and nearly collected an unconventional double-double with ten rebounds and a staggering nine blocks. Thanks largely to Irvin, the Norse managed to limit Cleveland State’s inside game without committing fouls for most of the evening, as the Vikings ended the game shooting just 30.8 percent from the floor while the numbers of total fouls and free throw attempts (stats the Vikings typically dominate) were virtually even between the teams.
“The officials weren’t calling it very tight tonight, both ways, and there was a lot of contact on shots,” Kielsmeier said. “Sometimes there would be a double team down there, and we’d have players standing wide open.”
“We fought the game, we fought layups and free throws, and just were out of sync all night, in part because Northern Kentucky’s a great basketball team. They’re physical and they’re well-coached, and they came in here with a ton of confidence. At the end of the day, you just gotta find a way, and that’s what they did.”
“We’re focusing on one game at a time, and we definitely wanted to win this one,” Zieniewska added. “We were chasing them the whole game, and we just needed to get that one-point lead, then we knew we could execute at the end.”
After NKU pieced together its largest lead of the evening, a pair of Leo three pointers in the last 1:19 of the third period fueled an 8-0 run that got the Vikings back within one. Williams played a similar tide-stemming role in the fourth quarter, notching four points on consecutive runouts following long rebounds to give CSU its first lead since just after halftime with 6:02 left in the game. Moore offered 13 points and 16 rebounds, while Amele Ngwafang contributed nine points and ten rebounds.
CSU will wrap up its regular season home schedule with a Senior Day battle against Wright State on Saturday at 2:00 P.M. before finishing the slate with the annual trip to America’s Dairyland to play Green Bay and Milwaukee. After that, of course, the Horizon League tournament quarterfinals will follow on March 2nd.
“The stretch that we’re on is as tough of a stretch as it gets. It [would be] tough in November and December, let alone at this point in time,” Kielsmeier said.