Everything’s always stretched a little bit out of proportion in season openers. It’s probably fair to say that, given the months of buildup, they receive more attention than any other game on the regular schedule. Each team in the country posts social media countdowns aimed at that very specific date, and everyone is eager to analyze – and over-analyze – their team’s new roster after what’s often the first opportunity to see it play together.
A lot of the time, the attention isn’t really justified, since many programs prefer to open with a winnable game, or at least cash a five-figure check in a loss. Cleveland State has traveled both of those roads in recent years, collecting a comfortable home victory against East Tennessee State to begin 2021-22 before last year’s learning experience at Iowa State.
So when Destiny Leo rebounded a missed free throw with the score tied 86-86 and 1.9 seconds remaining, then immediately called a timeout that CSU didn’t have to effectively hand Bowling Green an 89-86 win in the center of a tournament-ready atmosphere at the Stroh Center on Tuesday night, it’s pretty easy to turn the sequence into something larger than reality.
“I’ve gotta do a better job,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier admitted, while sounding about as exasperated as he did following CSU’s HL regular-season-title deciding loss at Green Bay back in February. “I told them in the huddle we were out of timeouts. Any time players don’t execute in those moments, I believe it’s a direct reflection of their head coach. I’ve gotta do a better job.”
That may all be true, but the fact is that it wasn’t Chris Webber in the national championship game. It was simply the final, fatal mistake in a non-conference game on November 7th. A big one in some respects, sure – after all, the Vikings and Bowling Green were two of just ten teams nationally to win 30 or more games last season – but ultimately, a relatively meaningless affair, given that the Horizon League and Mid-American Conference are both single-bid outfits right now.
The same could probably be said of Colbi Maples’ two missed free throws with nine seconds left that would have extended CSU’s lead to 88-85 and provided much more of a cushion against the disastrous closing events. Or of a rash of missed rebounds and runout-producing turnovers, along with an opponent that shot 12-for-21 from three-point range, which combined to vaporize a 17-point Viking advantage early in the second quarter.
That’s the rational way to view what happened in Northwest Ohio. Just don’t say “it’s only November 7th” to Kielsmeier, a man who prides himself on his team’s effort to win every practice rep, let alone entire basketball games.
“We’ve gotta grow up. How many mistakes, things that you were looking at and going ‘who is this team?’ I’m not used to them making those kinds of mistakes,” he said. “The reality of it is that we’ve got a lot of young players within this system, we don’t have a lot of young players as far as college basketball experience, and we’ve gotta toughen up.”
“You spend years building this roster, even though you solidify it in the spring, what you’re doing to build it is years long,” he added. “So every start of the season has a lot of excitement and a lot of hype to it, and we knew what we were getting when we decided to schedule this game. We knew the kind of competitors and the kind of program that BG has, and our entire coaching staff knew that we needed to toughen this group up and be more composed in tough situations. We just weren’t tonight.”
It does need to be said that the Vikings would not be in anywhere near the position for a couple of crushing mistakes to flip the game without Leo and Maples.
Until the game’s final two seconds, Leo was her usual national-award-caliber self, pouring in 31 points on 11-for-21 shooting, including a falling-backwards three-pointer with 45 seconds left that put the Vikings ahead 84-82. In some less-cruel parallel dimension, it would have turned out to be one of the contest’s pivotal plays.
Grambling transfer guard Maples was arguably just as good while scoring 27 points, most on drives down the lane that the Falcons simply couldn’t slow down. Just five game seconds before her misses from the line, she buried two free throws to put CSU ahead by four with 14 seconds left. Like Leo’s triple, they easily could have been near the top of this article instead of in the bottom half.
Carmen Villalobos was outstanding defensively, including a couple well-timed steals in the fourth quarter, along with 11 points and seven rebounds overall. Faith Burch also featured as prominently as she ever has in the first half, chipping in ten points.
Those are all good things that will probably have a lot more say in how Cleveland State’s season ultimately proceeds than some uncharacteristic mistakes by a group playing its first regulation game together. But that won’t stop Kielsmeier from racing his team back to the grind ahead of what should be another brutally-tough non-conference road affair, against former HL opponent Loyola Chicago on Sunday.
“We’ve gotta make some changes,” he said. “We had 89 points scored on us. Have you seen a team score 89 points on us ever? We just didn’t defend tonight at all. If you asked me a month ago where our system was at, I’d say our defense is way ahead of our offense. We just made a lot of mistakes on the offensive end that led to transition shots, which is something we take tremendous pride in preventing. They had 19 fast-break points, and we want that number to be close to zero.”
“We made plenty of plays to win, we just made too many mistakes to lose.”