Vikings pull away from Milwaukee to advance to HL semifinals for fourth consecutive year

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Brittni Moore and Gabriella Smith fueled Cleveland State surges to begin the second and third quarters, as the Vikings advanced to the Horizon League semifinals for the fourth straight season thanks to a 65-52 win over Milwaukee in a quarterfinal contest on Thursday night at the Wolstein Center.

Following a tight first quarter, Moore, who led CSU (28-4 overall) with 17 points while adding seven rebounds, got to work. She knocked down a three pointer on the first possession of the next frame, added a layup with a free throw 41 seconds later, then bounced home another layup. By the time Deja Williams finished off an 18-3 run covering nearly six minutes (including the first ten points of the second quarter), the Vikings led 26-14.

“My mindset going into the game is pretty much the same as every game,” Moore said. “I try to be steady for my team and do the intangibles, just whatever they need me to do, whether that’s passing the ball, scoring the ball, getting rebounds, defensive stops. Whatever I need to do that night, that’s my main focus.”

“I’d give anything to have another year with her, because she’s playing the best basketball of her life right now,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said of his all-conference second teamer.

Smith then built from the foundation of an eight-point lead at halftime. The starting guard scored seven points (of her 13 total), and added two steals, along with a rebound, in the first five minutes of the third quarter, as CSU used an 11-1 run to push to its largest lead of the contest.  

“It’s one of the perks of having a deep team,” Moore said. “You never know whose night it’s going to be, and it really makes us versatile in the sense that the defense can never rest, because they never know who it’s going to come from. Some possessions, they’re paying more attention to [Destiny Leo] or [Amele Ngwafang] and I get to score, and now I’m heating up and the attention is on me, so they can do their things. It’s a good balance, we all feed off of it really well.”

“We have all of the girls that can do it. We’re really deep,” Leo added.

A constant through both runs, of course, was Cleveland State’s defense, which generated 11 steals during the game while holding the Panthers to 32.8 percent on their field goal attempts – including a 1-for-10 effort during the pivotal third quarter.

“I’m very fortunate to coach a group that wants to defend,” Kielsmeier said. “Defense is hard, you gotta work, and you gotta put a lot of guts into it. You’ve gotta execute as well, you can’t make mistakes.”

“I’ve been as hard on this team to get better defensively as maybe any team I’ve coached in quite a while because I believe in them so much, and I believe they’ve got another gear in them defensively. To me, that’s the ticket in March.”

“We kind of were in that position last week against Milwaukee, granted we don’t want to be in that position when we have a lead, we just want to keep adding on to it,” Leo said, referencing her team’s regular-season-closing victory at UWM last Saturday. “I think the most important thing is that in those kinds of situations, we know that we need to come up with some stops and some plays.”

Milwaukee was led by Megan Walstad, as the redshirt senior saved one of the best games of her life for the swan song of her career. The 6-2 forward bucketed a career-high 30 points, highlighted by four consecutive second-quarter three pointers (the final three arrived during a 98-second span late in the frame), while pulling in 11 rebounds. The performance followed up an 11 rebound, five block effort in the February 25th meeting between the Panthers and Vikings.

“Megan Walstad is a big-time player. We’ve known that, she stuck 28 on us five years ago, she’s a great player and she didn’t want to go home tonight,” Kielsmeier said. “That’s what March Madness is all about, players just desperate for another day.”

Walstad’s efforts charged a 13-4 UWM run over the last six minutes of the second quarter that negated most of Moore’s efforts during the period. Then, after Smith helped Cleveland State’s lead balloon to 18 points midway through the third quarter, freshman point guard Kamy Peppler initiated another UWM push that trimmed the Vikings advantage to seven with eight minutes remaining.

Moore, however, sealed CSU’s advancement with a late-shot-clock three pointer with 55 seconds left to put the Vikings up by 11.

“I practice that a lot,” she said. “The biggest thing for me was that I knew the situation, I knew I had prepared for that moment, so it was just a matter of taking it with confidence, and it went in.”

The senior forward and her teammates will now head to Indianapolis and the Indiana Farmers Coliseum for the Horizon League semifinals and championship game on Monday and Tuesday. Second-seeded CSU will play fifth-place Northern Kentucky in one of Monday’s pairings, while regular season champion Green Bay battles upset-minded Purdue Fort Wayne.

“It doesn’t matter who we play,” Kielsmeier said. “They’re going to be a really, really good basketball team, and we gotta be ready to play and focus on what Cleveland State needs to do to do their job right.”

“But we won baby, let’s go to Indy. This is a big deal. For us to go to Indy four straight years, how many teams in the country can say they’ve been in their conference tournament semifinals four years in a row?”

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