Cleveland State only led Southern Mississippi for 4:05 of their Homewood Suites Classic opener on Wednesday afternoon in Fort Myers, Fla. The good news for the Vikings? It was the last 4:05 of the fourth quarter, as CSU rallied to take down the Eagles 70-63 in what will unquestionably stand as the green and white’s most impressive win of their non-conference schedule.
Mickayla Perdue led the Vikings with 24 points, including a 5-for-12 effort from behind the arc. Several of her triples helped keep Southern Miss from building an insurmountable lead during stretches where her team’s offense was sluggish and, appropriately enough, her last three of the game finally gave Cleveland State its first and only lead, which measured 60-58 at its inception.
“She’s playing really well right now,” head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “She’s doing a great job defensively too, sometimes those things don’t show up. She’s defending and she’s hitting timely shots, big ones in big moments when we really need her to.”
Colbi Maples and her driving game largely took over once Cleveland State was finally on the front foot. That included the next points of the contest, a layup that gave the Vikings a 62-58 advantage, though most of her late production came at the free throw line. In all, Maples was 8-for-9 from the stripe – nearly half of her 18 points – with her foul shots standing as five of CSU’s final eight tallies, contributing to a less-dramatic-than-expected ending.
While things ultimately concluded well enough for the Vikings, they certainly didn’t begin that way. USM’s Morgan Sieper opened the game with two quick threes from right in front of the Cleveland State bench to give the Eagles an early 6-2 lead. That early surge spearheaded a first quarter that saw Southern Miss connect on nine of their 13 field goal attempts on the way to building a 21-9 lead before Perdue’s first deep ball, a heave against an expiring shot clock, made the score 21-12 at the quarter break.
“I just don’t think we were doing anything right, our defense was really lax, let [Sieper] get a couple wide-open looks, which…the scout was to make sure she didn’t get those,” Kielsmeier said.
“We really had a hard time getting into our offense, their ability to pressure us in the backcourt really slowed us up offensively. We knew the press was coming, I just thought we’d be a lot more aggressive with it. That just made us slow and stagnant on both ends of the floor.”
Crucially, the Vikings began to break through and attack the basket more in the second quarter, after the opening frame passed without a single foul on either team, and trimmed their deficit to a manageable half-dozen by halftime. Perdue’s second triple made the score 25-20 with 5:39 to go, while Jordana Reisma scored half of her eventual 12 points in the period to help lift the CSU offense back to the locker room.
However, the spread between the teams mostly lingered between four and eight points through the entire third quarter and some of the fourth as well, until a stretch pass by Faith Burch after a defensive rebound with 6:56 remaining found Perdue for an easy two points. A Perdue three and a Reisma transition bucket followed, then Maples’ and-one play on a slashing layup completed a 10-2 run that tied things up for the first time since 0-0.
Though the Vikings’ starting guards headlined things, the unsung heroines of the afternoon may have been CSU’s frontcourt players. Reisma and Carmen Villalobos (who is officially a guard, but is also more or less the walking definition of “positionless basketball”) both picked up double-doubles, while Burch received her most extensive usage of the season so far, 21 minutes, and rewarded the coaches’ trust with 13 rebounds. Many of those rebounds, like the one fed to Perdue that helped pull CSU within striking distance, led to transition opportunities during a contest where the Vikings often struggled to get their speed game going.
“Faith has got a ton of potential and ability to impact the game on both ends of the floor, it’s just a matter of trying to get her to settle into the system and reach her potential,” Kielsmeier said. “This coaching staff fully believes in her, and really believes that she can have an incredible year. Hopefully today was a springboard for her, because she played really hard, but she played really smart.”
“They were rebounding on us so hard that it was leaving outlets open down the floor, and every huddle we were talking about ‘rebound and run, rebound and run,’” he added. “You’ve gotta get clean rebounds [to do that], and Faith got up there and got some really clean rebounds, and got the ball out and down the floor.”
Entering the game, USM boasted a 7-1 mark this season, notably including an upset of then-No. 19 Ole Miss on December 2nd. Additionally, the Vikings and Eagles occupied consecutive places in the NET, 87th and 88th. In other words, it was the type of victory than can buoy Cleveland State in various rankings and opinions all year long, even if Kielsmeier remains focused on the opportunities for improvement within his team.
“We knew that they were a great basketball team, we anticipate them winning 20, 25-plus games,” he said. “They’ve got a great shot to go to the NCAA Tournament with winning their league.”
“We didn’t play very well early, we didn’t play very well for most of the night, but sometimes you just gotta find a way, and that’s what we did. We really executed well down the stretch, good offensive sets, hit some big shots, made our free throws. Just found a way to win an ugly basketball game.”
Cleveland State will close out the Homewood Suites Classic on Thursday afternoon against Drexel, which lost to host team Florida Gulf Coast by a 61-35 score in Wednesday’s nightcap.