Leo, Vikings prove that looks can sometimes kill, advance to #HLWBB title game

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Destiny Leo had a look.

“[In overtime] she was giving me a look in the huddle,” Cleveland State head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “I don’t know what it was, but she gave me a look I had never seen, she was looking right through me. I think it was just ‘coach, give me the ball.’”

“I don’t even know if she knew she was doing it, but man she was staring through me. I don’t know if she was mad at me because I didn’t make the play call quick enough.”

For her part, Leo confirmed the latter explanation, saying that she did give a look after a late play call led to a turnover, but admitted that she didn’t know whether there may have been a second look and didn’t know for sure what her coach was talking about.

Regardless of the specific circumstances, it was the look of a player about to will her team to a 63-60 overtime win over Northern Kentucky in a Horizon League semifinal contest on Monday afternoon at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.

The conference player of the year’s first attempt at heroics didn’t quite land, though. Leo’s deep three late in the shot clock gave the Vikings a 54-51 lead with 1:19 remaining in the fourth quarter, a huge blow in a defensive struggle littered with turnovers and, occasionally, missed shots. While CSU got a stop on the ensuing Norse possession, Leo quickly turned it back over – the possible origin story of “the look” – and NKU superstar Lindsey Duvall made her second-seeded opponents pay with a triple to force overtime with eight seconds left.

However, the extra period would proceed much more smoothly for Cleveland State.

On the Vikings’ opening possession of OT Leo, who finished with a game-high 25 points on 9-for-15 shooting, connected on another three. She then added a jumper to put the Vikings up by five and in the driver’s seat for the remainder of the frame. Brittni Moore and Gabriella Smith later added buckets, which was just enough for CSU to survive when Norse guard Kailee Davis misfired on a tying three-point attempt with two seconds left.

“I wouldn’t necessarily be able to have that confidence in those moments if it weren’t for my teammates,” Leo said. “Gabby [Smith] said something to me when we were going into overtime like ‘let’s get it, this is your time,’ we just had a lot of girls make a lot of different buckets in overtime. We were going through the roster.”

“When overtime started, we had some good play calls,” she added. “We had [Amele Ngwafang] out there setting really good screens, it wasn’t just me out there, it was definitely a team effort. We had some great offensive rebounds in overtime, and we were finishing to the basket.”

“They got us twice, they got us down in Kentucky and they got it to force overtime,” Kielsmeier said of NKU’s late-game three-point attempts throughout the season series. “We finally got the stop when we needed it.”

Overtime was likely the last thing on the Vikings’ minds midway through the second quarter. After CSU took an 11-2 lead early in the game, Northern Kentucky peeled off a 17-2 run to surge ahead 19-13 through ten minutes of play. The Norse built on that success and eventually had a 32-22 advantage with 2:20 before halftime, thanks to two of Duvall’s 21 points.

“I think at times tonight we really pressed,” Kielsmeier said. “We were out of sync, and I struggled a lot in the first half trying to get them to calm down, settle in and play our kind of basketball. They got out on us transition-wise, we knew going into the game that their transition was elite. We were putting a lot into it, but Northern Kentucky was putting more.”

“But I didn’t have to say a whole lot to them, this is an experienced group.”

Things began to turn in the Vikings’ favor in the final minute of the second quarter when Leo and Smith combined for five points in 20 seconds to trim CSU’s deficit in half. Leo then scored the first four points of the third period, while Moore’s steal and score with 5:56 left in the frame gave her team its first lead since the early part of the contest.

Moore finished with 12 points – including the 1,000th of her career – and ten rebounds, while Smith added 14 points along with outstanding defense and the right words to fire up Leo prior to overtime. The duo helped the Vikings enjoy a 37-25 rebounding advantage and an 18-8 edge in points in the paint after halftime.

“That’s something we pride ourselves on, we always talk about the three margins: turnovers, rebounds and free throws,” Moore said. “If we come out and play the way we’re supposed to play, the stats will show it. With our depth and our level of physicality, there’s no reason we shouldn’t dominate the boards every night.”

“In my opinion, there’s not a better indicator of how hard we’re playing than that rebound margin,” Kielsmeier added. “We challenged them [on that] and they responded.”

“In a game like this, every single thing is magnified huge. It’s a big part of why we won the game.”

With the victory, Cleveland State – now 29-4 overall – advanced to Tuesday’s Horizon League championship game where a bid to the NCAA Tournament also hangs in the balance. The Vikings will face conference regular season champion Green Bay, which defeated Purdue Fort Wayne in Monday’s first semifinal. The Phoenix, of course, have also beaten CSU twice in 2022-23, including a February 23rd meeting that locked down the season title.

“We’ve been here before,” Moore said, alluding to CSU’s appearance in last season’s HL championship game. “We’ve had a chip on our shoulder pretty much the entire season because we know every time we take the court, we’re going to get everyone’s best. We’ve just gotta keep grinding, keep fighting on defense, and the ball will go in.”

“Do your job right, keep your eye on the prize, when we do that, we feel like we’ve got a really good chance to win,” Kielsmeier said.

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