Vikings storm past Niagara for eighth straight win

Photo: Cleveland State Athletics

Sara Guerreiro shattered her career high with 22 points, while adding eight rebounds and five steals, as Cleveland State thumped Niagara 87-56 on Wednesday night in the Wolstein Center to improve to 8-1 overall.

The game was never in doubt after the Vikings, who led wire to wire in their eighth straight victory, went on a 14-0 run beginning just three minutes into the contest. During the surge, CSU forced a staggering nine turnovers, the bulk of the 12 committed by the Purple Eagles in the first quarter. Eight of those 12 turnovers came on Vikings steals, an obvious highlight of what may have been the team’s best ten minutes of defense so far this season.

“We’re getting better defensively,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “Our positioning, our ability to get tips on balls is getting better, our ball pressure is getting better.”

Guerreiro credited those efforts, combined with some success breaking Niagara’s “Hurricane Havoc” press, for her best-ever offensive game.

“A big part of the points I scored is that my teammates just found me,” she said. “We had a strategy for this game to break their press and that’s what we did, we just got easy shots. Now I’ve just got to keep sustaining it, if I did it tonight, I can do it other games. I just have to find a way to not let it be a fluke and keep going like this.”

“She had a hard time being able to settle in to where she could make plays, but over the last couple weeks, she’s played the best basketball, maybe of her life,” Kielsmeier added.

Along with Guerreiro, Carmen Villalobos was instrumental to CSU’s stopping power with eight rebounds and four steals, leading to a plus-31 rating (second in the game only to Guerreiro’s plus-33), while Grace Ellis added three steals in just under 20 minutes of playing time. Fueled largely by the first-quarter bonanza, the Vikings ended up forcing 31 Niagara turnovers, including 19 steals, just one of a healthy list of statistics demonstrating the home team’s dominance.

Cleveland State scored 38 points off of those 31 turnovers, outscored NU 26-0 on fast breaks, and shot 54.4 percent from the floor, thanks largely to the bevy of lightly-contested layups.

Kielsmeier believes that Villalobos is one of the primary drivers of many of those numbers, even if they don’t always show up next to her name.

“I think a lot of times with Carmen, she just doesn’t stick out on the stat sheet sometimes, so people may not think she’s playing all that well,” he explained. “She’s gotta be the most underrated player in the country on paper. She’s just the glue for our program, she does everything we’ve needed her to do defensively.

“She’s a very emotional, passionate leader behind the scenes, she does a lot for this program. Carmen just knows basketball, and she’s worked hard to learn this system.”

Mickayla Perdue provided most of the Vikings’ scoring early in the contest – particularly at the ends of runout situations – tallying eight first quarter points on the way to 19 for the game. That number represented a new green-and-white best for the Glenville State transfer, and continued a five-game streak of 13 points or more. Howard graduate Brooklynn Fort-Davis also established a new CSU high with 15 points, while Filippa Goula added nine in her return after sitting out the Vikings’ first two Horizon League games last week.

“Our preparation was really good, we had high expectations for this game,” Guerreiro said. “We know that right now, this time of the season, is to build our resume, so we’re locked in.”

All in all, it was one of those feel-good blowouts of an overmatched opponent that have come to characterize a good chunk of Cleveland State’s non-conference games over the last three seasons – with two notable exceptions.

The Vikings’ evening was blemished a bit by the 26 turnovers they committed, partly due to Niagara’s disruptive pressing efforts, but partly self-inflicted as well.

“We know that there’s a lot of things that we can clean up,” Kielsmeier acknowledged. “But they embrace that. When I’m telling them things that we need to get better at, I really believe that they already know it. They’re owning that stuff internally.”

“Some situations I was trying to rush, and against teams that press like [Niagara], we can’t panic, we have to be smart in the decisions we make,” Guerreiro said, perhaps demonstrating her coach’s point.

In addition to Destiny Leo’s ongoing injury situation, the Vikings were without Shadiya Thomas, who was not present in the arena and a presumptive victim of one of the illnesses that have been passed around the roster dating at least back to the team’s game at Loyola Chicago on November 12th.

“I love how this team is handling adversity,” Kielsmeier said. “We’re still dealing with a lot of sickness, we had players that weren’t here tonight. It’s been a tough couple weeks for things that we can’t control, and this group has said that there’s a lot that we can control, so let’s focus in, let’s continue to learn our identity, and continue to get better as a basketball team.”

“This group works hard. They’re really connected, and their focus is outstanding.”

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