Gabriella Smith scored 15 points, pulled down nine rebounds and grabbed four steals, while Destiny Leo added a game-high 16 points, to lead Cleveland State to a hard-fought 63-56 victory over Milwaukee on Saturday afternoon at UWM’s Klotsche Center.
The victory finalizes Cleveland State’s regular season record at 27-4 overall and 17-3 in the Horizon League, with both marks standing as new program bests.
Beyond their respective statistical outputs, the Vikings’ two starting guards were at the center of each of the contest’s pivotal moments. The first came late in the second quarter of a 26-23 slugfest, when Smith triggered an 8-0 run to close the half with a layup. On CSU’s ensuing possession, Leo was forced to try a desperation three as the shot clock expired. However Smith tracked down the rebound of the miss and kicked it back up top to her backcourt mate, who made good of her second opportunity. Three Leo free throws later, the visitors had opened up an 11-point halftime lead that defied the run of play to that point.
“What created that deep three for Destiny was a hustle play by Gabby, chasing that rebound down, creating a second chance opportunity,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We had a way to piece those runs together, sometimes we can pop them fast, if we can get a shot in transition. Sometimes it just takes us four, five, six minutes to grind it out on both ends of the floor.”
Despite that sudden deficit, Milwaukee’s seniors, including Emma Wittmershaus, Megan Walstad and Jessi Giles, were not about to fade away on an afternoon dedicated to celebrating their careers. The towering duo of the 6-2 Walstad and the 6-3 Wittmershaus made inside life miserable for the Vikings all afternoon, combining for nine blocked shots and 17 rebounds.
“[Milwaukee coach Kyle Rechlicz] told me before the game that this was it for them, and she said how sad she was, and I said how happy I was,” Kielsmeier quipped. “They’re really good players on both ends of the floor.”
Giles, who tied Angie Cera for a team-best 13 points, mostly had offense on her mind. Roughly ten game minutes after CSU’s late-first-half run, the Vikings’ Carmen Villalobos fouled Giles while attempting to grab an offensive rebound with only moments remaining in the third quarter, and Giles hit two free throws at the other end of the floor to close the frame. The grad transfer from Dakota State went on to score ten Panthers points in a row, thanks to a pair of threes in the first 70 seconds of the fourth quarter, followed by a transition layup to tie the game at 49-49.
However, Cleveland State immediately pieced together another run, this time measuring 10-0, to – despite some late free throw hairiness – essentially clinch the result with a double-digit advantage into the final 2:30 of the match. Leo and Smith combined for seven of the ten points during the surge, and the capping play was a near-carbon copy of the second-chance three in the first half, as Smith rebounded a late-shot-clock Leo miss and fired the ball back up top for another try.
“I think this was the best game of [Smith’s] year, and we needed it,” Kielsmeier said. “She played great on both ends of the floor, her 15 points will really stick out, but she was all over the place defensively, she has the ability to do that and be that type of player. However good she was offensively with those points, she was every bit as good, if not better defensively.”
“[Milwaukee] played really well in the second half and hit us with some things that we hadn’t seen before, they cut and move a lot when the ball gets underneath us, which is difficult to defend. They got it tied, and then we went on a 10-0 run, and that’s ultimately what won us the game.”
The victory came just two days after the Vikings’ year-long dream of the first regular season conference championship in program history crashed into a foot of snow at Green Bay. In some ways, an active and physical Panthers team was the perfect remedy for any sustained malaise owing to that result, though the Vikings’ internal fortitude played some role as well.
“They showed their toughness, their fight, who they are as people to be ready to play today,” Kielsmeier said. “We were all sad, there’s no way to spin it. This school had never won a regular season championship in women’s basketball, and we talked about it all year. It was a goal, we wanted it, and we just didn’t do enough to get it done.
“That’s the way it goes sometimes, but you learn from it, you pick yourself up from it, and you move on.”
Second-place Cleveland State will now return home and await its opponent for Thursday’s Horizon League quarterfinal at the Wolstein Center. Three first-round games will take place on Tuesday, involving the sixth through eleventh place teams in the standings, and the second-lowest-seeded winner of those games will head to the shores of Lake Erie. In a twist of either fate or coincidence, if the favored teams win each of those opening matchups, CSU’s opponent will be seventh-seeded Milwaukee.
Kielsmeier admitted to watching the standings like any average fan, but quickly turned his attention back internally. Of particular concern: the availability of Sara Guerreiro, Barbara Zieniewska and Shadiya Thomas, each of whom missed the games in Wisconsin this week, joining the season-long absence of Julia Hintz.
“We’ve gotta get healthy,” he said. “We’ve had some players face some adversity and had to deal with some things this last week, hopefully we can get some of those players back, we don’t know exactly what the timeline is with any of them. This time of year, you want to be able to play your best basketball, and you hopefully have the availability of most, if not all, of your team.”
“We’re all tired, we all need some rest, but we need to be ready to go on Monday. The game’s pretty simple this time of year. Play well and win, or lose and go home.”