In a tunnel underneath the Kress Events Center stands, Cleveland State head coach Chris Kielsmeier hunched forward in a chair near a doorway, his chin cupped in his hand. Even when he briefly got up to move, he took the chair with him so that he wouldn’t be without a place to rest.
He struggled to find the right words to articulate how he was feeling.
“It’s a championship game, man,” he finally said. “You work all year, fight all year in one heck of a league. How good is Horizon League women’s basketball?”
Basically, he looked and spoke like what he was: a guy whose team had come tantalizingly close to the first regular season conference title in program history – setting several school records on the way – before it all faded into the vapor of an 11-0 Green Bay run spanning most of the fourth quarter, as the Phoenix took control of the Horizon League standings with a 64-49 victory on Thursday night.
“This one stings, it really hurts, there’s no doubt about that,” Kielsmeier added. “You give yourself the opportunity to have this, and you just hope you can handle the moment better than we did. We just didn’t handle it that well.”
The result dropped Cleveland State to 16-3 in the conference, while Green Bay improved to 17-2 and clinched a share of the Horizon League regular season championship along with the top seed for the conference’s tournament, which begins next week. Each team has one game remaining on their respective schedules, though the Phoenix only needs to take care of sixth-place Purdue Fort Wayne on Saturday to win the regular season crown outright.
The game lived up to its heavyweight title fight billing for three quarters as the teams traded blows though eight ties and nine lead changes, with neither side managing more than five points of separation. Green Bay pulled ahead 8-3 in the early going through Cassie Schiltz, but CSU quickly answered with a leaning Carmen Villalobos three. The Vikings squeezed ahead 32-27 early in the third quarter when Deja Williams connected from deep during a tied contest, followed by a pair of Destiny Leo free throws, but Bailey Butler and Sydney Levy pulled the Phoenix level on their next two possessions.
Green Bay then constructed a 45-40 lead late in the third quarter, but Villalobos knocked down a buzzer beater to make it a two-point game headed into the final frame.
“I wish we could get [Carmen] more involved offensively, we need to probably get her more involved offensively,” Kielsmeier lamented. “She and Jordana [Reisma] played great tonight, a freshman coming into this moment and this kind of situation, she handled it really well, he added of his star post player, who scored a team-high 11 points.
Leo added ten points, though she was just 2-for-11 from the floor and stood as a microcosm for the Vikings as a whole, who shot 30.9 percent for the game against one of the nation’s top ten teams for field goal suppression.
The back-and-forth nature of the affair stopped after Villalobos’ second big triple, as the Vikings managed only a Faith Burch bucket during the first 7:12 of the decisive period. Green Bay, not a team noted for offensive explosions, didn’t pull away immediately, but by the time Reisma broke the drought, CSU trailed by an insurmountable 11 points with less than three minutes to play.
“We missed a lot of easy shots throughout the course of the whole night, and then they really trapped us aggressive late,” Kielsmeier said. “We work on that all the time, but we just didn’t handle that very well. They made it hard for us to get what we wanted at times, but other times we had shots, we just didn’t hit them. You just gotta hit those shots in a game like this.”
Phoenix guard Natalie McNeal, who finished with a game-high 16 points, delivered two crucial blows during the decisive surge. Her jumper from the wing, against an expiring shot clock and directly off of Schiltz’s inbound pass, put Green Bay ahead 51-45, then the biggest advantage enjoyed by either team. McNeal added another deuce 90 seconds later, then assisted Levy’s three to cap off the run.
Levy, Butler, and Jasmine Kondrakiewicz all followed McNeal in double figures, while the Phoenix forced 18 CSU turnovers and only committed nine fouls all game long.
“Our defense was keeping us in it, giving us a chance to win the game, we just had to hit some shots and make some plays,” Kielsmeier said. “We didn’t do that, and it carried to the other end of the floor, we started to make mistakes down there, and Green Bay hit some big shots, and that’s ultimately why we lost the game.”
“You’ve gotta give Green Bay credit. They wanted it, and they showed it.”
The silver lining for the Vikings, and their supporters, is that a reasonably stout chance of a third meeting – one with even higher stakes – remains. With Green Bay and Cleveland State definitively holding the top two seeds in the Horizon League tournament, they will be heavily favored to meet in Indianapolis on March 7th for the league tournament title and a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Kielsmeier, however, believes he needs to see more from his team if he’s going to leave the chairs behind when standing and walking after that day’s prospective game.
“We didn’t handle this moment very well. We did not play one of our better games of the year,” he said. “If we’re not going to handle moments better than this in big situations, we’re not going to win in March. The thing that I hope this team can take away is that if we can work to get ourselves back to a situation like this again, we’ll be that much more driven to handle it better than we did tonight.”
Before any of that happens, CSU will close out its regular season at Milwaukee on Saturday, before hosting a Horizon League quarterfinal at the Wolstein Center on March 2nd (opponent to be determined). A win there would propel the Vikings back to the Circle City for the HL’s final four and a shot at redemption.