After five years of chasing a Horizon League championship – and a couple months of chasing Green Bay in the standings – Cleveland State finally caught both in a 73-61 blitz of the Phoenix in the HL’s title game on Tuesday afternoon at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis.
The victory, which comes with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, propelled the Vikings to 30-4 overall. It represents the third such championship and NCAA bid in program history, and the first since 2010.
For CSU to finally end its dual pursuits after empty trips to Indianapolis for the conference’s final four in 2020, 2021 and 2022, as well as a pair of humbling defeats against the Phoenix during the regular season that increased UWGB’s all-time series edge to 71-9, the Vikings had to change their approach and do a couple things that made them a bit uncomfortable.
Call it part of what it takes to become a champion.
“A big part of why today got done was the belief that this program had because of our struggles and our failures, not only on the court in between the lines, but in life,” Cleveland State coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We can always do things better, we can always grow as people. We’ve grown a lot over the last five years. Championships don’t happen as fast as you want them to, and you’ve got to put a lot into it. It’s really hard to chase being elite. It’s really hard to chase doing what this group did. You’ve gotta believe, and you’ve gotta work. That’s just what our program does.”
“We didn’t attack them very well either time,” he added, referring to his team’s pair of 2022-23 losses to the Phoenix. “You can’t beat them inside, and Cleveland State wants to beat you inside. We’re going to go to the basket, we’re going to get to the free throw line, we’re just going to beat you up in the paint. And you can’t beat them that way, I don’t think. You’ve gotta be prepared to do a little less.”
So on Tuesday, the Vikings tried something different: let it fly, early and often. Suddenly, a team that ranks in the bottom half of NCAA Division I in its reliance on three-pointers fired 27 attempts from behind the arc, nearly matching a Phoenix team that is typically much more prolific from distance.
“That kind of goes towards the defense that Green Bay plays,” CSU guard Destiny Leo said. “They really sink in on the drive, and that left us opportunities to get some wide-open kick-out threes, high-percentage shots, and it was just a matter of knocking down those shots.”
Knock them down, they did, led by Gabriella Smith, who buried five of her seven triples on the way to a game-high 19 points, and Brittni Moore, who hit two tone-setters in the early stages of the contest before finishing with 14 points and ten rebounds. Barbara Zieniewska landed three of her six tries, while Leo added a pair of treys, including a dagger of a third quarter buzzer beater. In all, Cleveland State connected 13 times on those 27 three-point attempts, against a Phoenix team that is 16th-best nationally in defensive three-point percentage.
“It was just confidence after we saw the first shot went in, it just went from there,” Smith said. “It was just one of our days, we’re great shooters, and that’s how we took it.”
The Vikings, somewhat uncharacteristically, also hit a staggering 22 of their 23 free throw attempts led by Leo’s 7-for-7 and Amele Ngwafang’s 6-for-6.
“We have a lot of girls that can make a lot of plays, and a lot of girls who can do a lot of different things,” Leo concurred. “Everyone came through tonight, which was awesome.”
“They shot the ball well,” Green Bay coach Kevin Borseth admitted. “They played a perfect game.”
Unlike the Vikings’ offense, Kielsmeier’s matchup zone defense didn’t have to be tweaked a ton.
“In our zone defense, we were just trying to squeeze the high post, and we were trying to get out to shooters really fast, make those three pointers a little bit of a lower-percentage shot for them,” Leo said. “The whole game was about getting stops and rebounds, and converting it on the other end.”
It worked, as CSU held Green Bay to a miserable 6-for-31 line from three-point range, and a 31.9 percent field goal rate overall, helping to fuel a decisive 24-4 run spanning the third and fourth quarters. That surge took a 36-35 CSU lead three minutes into the second half all the way up to an insurmountable 60-39 edge with 5:09 remaining in the game. The high-effort, shot-pressuring style compensated for the Phoenix’s ability to stay away from the mistakes that typically feed the Vikings’ defense.
“We win on our defense,” Kielsmeier said. “We want to turn teams over and score in transition offensively off of our defense, it’s a big part of why we play a lot of zone. Green Bay is really hard to turn over, really hard to get them to beat themselves. To hold them down to what we did shows the great effort defensively as a team. We had so many people come off the bench that played so hard. You hit a shot, you get headlines, but you’ve gotta dig in and grind on the defensive end, and that’s what this group does.”
“If we came up with a spark, whether it was making shots, on the offensive side, or on the defensive side, if we played hard, it would trigger the rest of our team to play well too,” Smith said. “We got what we deserved, we fought for it.”
Following the victory, Leo was named the conference tournament’s most valuable player, while Smith and Moore also received spots on the all-tournament team. Green Bay’s Cassie Schiltz and Northern Kentucky’s Lindsey Duvall rounded out the quintet.
Cleveland State will now return home and await its NCAA Tournament fate, which will be revealed on Sunday, March 12th at 8:00 P.M. The Vikings’ first round game will then follow on either March 17th or 18th at a location to be determined, and should CSU advance, the second round would follow at the same site on March 19th or 20th.