When Villanova superstar Maddy Siegrist scored the last two of her 35 points late in Saturday night’s NCAA First Round game at VU’s Finneran Pavilion, Cleveland State coach Chris Kielsmeier instinctively looked up at the scoreboard, which read 76-56 Wildcats with 1:58 remaining.
CSU then inbounded the ball, as Kielsmeier reversed his pace towards the offensive end of the floor and quickly checked one more time, just in case he had misread something on his first glance. Unfortunately for him, the numbers were no more favorable than they were two seconds before, as his team’s comfort with the game arrived too late to offset a deficit that hit 32 points early in the fourth quarter of a 76-59 defeat to their fourth-seeded hosts.
The result closed the file on Cleveland State’s 2022-23 season – objectively, the best in program history – with a 30-5 overall record, along with the Horizon League tournament championship and the taste of March Madness attached to it. The 30 victories, along with a 16-game winning streak that covered most of the first half of the season, is a CSU record.
After a plodding start to the contest, Siegrist and Villanova initially broke things open with a 16-1 run to close the first quarter, flipping an early 6-3 CSU lead to a 19-7 count over a 4:53 span. Kaitlyn Orihel hit a pair of three-pointers in the late stages of the period to punctuate the surge.
“I think after we hit that first shot, I think that we really weren’t settled in that much,” Vikings guard Destiny Leo said. “If we would have came into the game doing more of what we usually do, maybe we would have had a different outcome.”
“The game down to, we made too many mistakes early and got out of sync, and I just couldn’t get them to settle down and play in the moment, and that’s what really good teams do,” Kielsmeier said. “That’s also what the moment can do to you.”
“My biggest fear about today was getting our players to settle in and really play the way we are capable of playing, prior to it getting where we had to turn it ugly and kind of chase from behind.”
That fear was realized over the next 20 minutes of game time, as VU increased their lead to 21 by halftime, then to 29 at the end of the third quarter. CSU had no answer of substance for Siegrist, who scored her 1,000th point of the season in the second period, becoming just the fifth player in Division I history to hit four figures in a single campaign.
“We knew she was a great player before the game but tonight we got to see her firsthand,” Leo said. “I think she does a really good job of just finishing up high. She’s automatic from that low post area.”
“We knew Maddy was going to get 20; I hoped she didn’t get 35,” Kielsmeier added. “But you can’t stop her. Anybody that thinks they can is wasting too much time trying to throw too much at her because she’s that good. So we wanted to focus on the others.”
The problem was, those others offered notable supporting contributions, beginning with Orihel’s separating threes. Christina Dalce pulled in 13 first half rebounds among her 16 total as VU dominated the glass for much of the game, while Bella Runyan knocked down a trio of three pointers on the way to 13 points. Collectively, the Wildcats logged 26 assists on 29 made field goals, with Brooke Mullin’s six helpers leading the way.
“You knew Maddy [Siegrist] and Lucy [Olsen] would find the ball,” VU coach Denise Dillon said. “They would find open spots to get some shots, and that did work in our favor with Maddy. But it was really good that the other players really zoned in, for lack of a better term, on what needed to be done to get open looks.”
“Those three-balls that [Orihel] hit in the corner early in the game were big mistakes by our defense that we don’t normally make,” Kielsmeier said. “And that kind of really got us down, and we got a little bit frustrated and we didn’t handle the execution of our game plan the way we needed to.”
Leo starred for Cleveland State on a national stage, scoring 25 points – second only to Siegrist in the game – on 8-for-17 shooting, while adding four rebounds and four assists. Her three-pointer on the opening possession of the game, followed a few minutes later by a layup and a free throw generated by a back cut and a laser find from Brittni Moore, gave CSU its only lead.
“I did my best,” said Runyan, who had the unenviable defensive assignment on the Horizon League’s player of the year. “She’s a really good player. She gets her shot off really fast.”
“Destiny was Destiny tonight,” Kielsmeier said. “I think that there’s probably a lot more people that now really know how good she is.”
Unlike the Vikings, however, Villanova was able to clamp down on the opposing superstar’s supporting cast, and at the end of the third quarter, CSU had just five field goals made by a player other than Leo. All-conference second teamer Moore, who drew Siegrist’s coverage for a lot of the game, was limited to just 1-for-9 from the floor on the way to four points.
“She’s a great player,” Siegrist said of Moore. “She’s a great shooter, so knowing that I had to use my length against her and try to force her into where the help was.”
“Honestly I was kind of honored to have Maddy guard me,” Moore said. “I was like, I feel really important. It didn’t bother me. For me it was just putting the ball in the hole, really. It was just one of those days.”
“They are good defensively because they are long and they are athletic, and they have got a shot-blocker inside and they have a lot of size and length in the perimeter that we don’t normally see quite that much, and I think that really affected us mentally,” Kielsmeier said.
Much like in the season opener at Iowa State – where CSU outscored the Cyclones over the second half in a blowout loss – the Vikings finally seemed to relax while adjusting to the speed and length of a high-major opponent by the fourth quarter. The underdogs gave the engaged crowd of roughly 6,500 fans and a national television audience ample evidence of their ability to compete with one of the better teams in the country, it just came with too little time remaining and with the score too far out of hand, as Kielsmeier understood while looking upwards late in the contest.
Primarily, the Vikings were able to put up 25 fourth quarter tallies by attacking the basket and getting to the free throw line. The program trademark was executed particularly well by Amele Ngwafang and Deja Williams, who finished with nine and seven points respectively, with each going 5-for-6 at the free throw line. Ngwafang also added a team-high seven rebounds.
“I’m very proud of who our players are and showing their character and their fight,” Kielsmeier said. “But we are a lot better basketball team than what we showed today. You have to give Villanova credit for that. We didn’t handle the moment as well as what I had hoped. We’ll learn from this as a program and certainly grow and bet better from it.”
While Cleveland State will have a whole offseason to figure out how to return to the NCAA Tournament and be ready for the moment once there, while also moving forward without key graduating players like Moore and Ngwafang, Villanova advanced to play 12th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast in the tourney’s second round on Monday night. Kielsmeier, however, had some joking advice for the Eagles:
“Stay at the hotel.”