The scoreboard is, indisputably, a huge part of why sports have such a tight hold on our society, a beacon of certainty in an uncertain world. When you play or watch a game, you know at the end of the thing, without fail, there are going to be numbers that tell you exactly what sort of day you had, and whether your team was better than the team you played.
There’s a pretty significant flaw with that thinking though: the teams involved in the game – any game – are never operating on completely equal terms, because games are played by human beings and not AI-driven robots in a laboratory (not yet, anyway). Someone’s always been hit a little harder by injuries. Someone’s always a little more motivated that day, generally, whichever side lost the previous game in the series. Someone’s at home and someone’s on the road.
Such was the case for Cleveland State against Green Bay on Saturday afternoon at the Kress Center, as the flawlessly-executing Phoenix picked apart CSU’s still-developing defense for most of 40 minutes in an 85-72 defeat. The loss dropped the Vikings to 11-3 overall and 2-1 in the Horizon League.
Green Bay is, of course, the Horizon League’s long-established juggernaut, with systems refined over decades and run by a steady procession of Wisconsin natives who usually play their entire collegiate careers in the northeast corner of the state. Seven of the nine Phoenix players who saw the floor on Saturday averaged at least 14 minutes per game for last year’s HL regular season champions (the exceptions, freshman Maren Westin and IUPUI transfer Natalie Andersen, totaled 13:49 of action).
Appropriately enough, it was one of those veteran stars, Cassie Schiltz, who broke open a close contest in the third quarter. Schiltz connected on a trio of three pointers spaced just 2:35 apart midway through the frame, the heavy lifting behind a 15-3 Green Bay run that turned a 51-51 tie into a 66-54 Phoenix advantage. That margin would endure with only slight variation the rest of the way.
In all, Schiltz bucketed a game-high and career-high 27 points, including a 6-for-10 mark from deep. She also hit all five of her free throws, part of a 16-for-18 team-wide effort that included a streak of 16 in a row after a pair of Maddy Schreiber misses in the game’s opening moments.
Though the longball was ultimately the final blow, the Vikings’ defensive woes started much earlier than that, despite guarding the perimeter competently in the first half. Jordana Reisma collected a pair of fouls in the first two minutes of the contest and spent most of the opening 20 minutes on the bench, helping lead to productive afternoons from the GB players that enjoy working the interior of the court, particularly Schreiber (16 points), Jasmine Kondrakiewicz (ten, with seven rebounds) and Jenna Guyer (ten).
Natalie McNeal added ten points and eight rebounds for the victors, and rounded out a near triple-double with the eight stitches she received after taking an incidental elbow from Faith Burch during a rebound battle late in the second quarter.
“We fouled so stinking much,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We’re not a fouling team. We don’t want to beat ourselves, we don’t want fouls that give away points, and we’re doing that a lot. And it’s also in turn causing us to get players in foul trouble that have to sit. We can’t have that.”
Reisma finally returned to the court in the second half to help shut things down in the paint, but when Green Bay’s famously-effective ball movement – the Phoenix had 27 assists on 30 made field goals, led by Bailey Butler’s eight helpers – found things softer out the outside, they started to let it fly.
Their ability to seamlessly adapt, according to Kielsmeier, comes with their experience.
“They’ve been together a lot,” he said. “They’ve coached together, they’ve played together, that continuity means a lot. We don’t have that, and we’re trying to overcome that right now, hopefully sooner rather than later.”
Kielsmeier’s squad, of course, is trying to build the sort of continuity that Green Bay seems to have in perpetuity. On Saturday, those realities collided with a predictable result, particularly when analyzing CSU’s defense.
“It’s not good enough right now,” the frustrated sixth-year coach said. “It’s not good enough on the perimeter, it’s not good enough in the high post, it’s not good enough on the block, and those are things we’ve gotta get fixed.”
“They just don’t grasp the rotations and the physicality of the zone. It’s being ran like a high school zone, and it’s killing me.”
Mickayla Perdue led the visitors with 23 points, 16 of those scored in a track meet of a second quarter that saw CSU use five three-pointers (three by Perdue) to keep pace. Colbi Maples earned nine of her 19 points in the first quarter, while Carmen Villalobos chipped in her usual well-rounded nine points and six rebounds, though Green Bay won the overall glass battle 36-27.
Even within those qualified successes, Kielsmeier saw a team that was forced out of its identity.
“This basketball team can score, and has a lot of confidence in their ability to do that, and you saw that in the first half,” he said. “If you’re a fan, that ought to be a great game to watch in the first half, because there wasn’t any defense being played. When you can score like we can score, you’ve got a chance to win games. But again, that’s a different identity than who we are. It all starts with defense and rebounding for us, and it’s not good enough.”
“We just didn’t play to our identity, and you have to give Green Bay a lot of credit for forcing us into being somebody that we’re not. We defend, we rebound, we run. That’s our identity. Which one of those did we do tonight?”
If there is a positive from the Cleveland State side of things, it’s that the cohesion the Vikings’ coaching staff desperately seeks will only improve over the course of the year, including for a February 3rd rematch at the Wolstein Center, a meeting that will now likely be a must-win for a program with the openly-stated goal of a first regular season conference title in program history. It’s entirely possible that the scoreboard says something different by then.
That may sound like a platitude, but how else can anyone explain Kielsmeier’s 1-9 record against Green Bay during the regular season paired with a 3-1 mark in HL tournament games, including knockout blows in each of the last three seasons?
“We’re not playing nearly the way we’re capable of playing,” he said. “And I honestly think we should be further along than what we are right now, and we’re not. That’s frustrating to me as a coach, because as a coaching staff, we’re supposed to fix that.”
“We’re going to get better. You see what we play like in February, we’re going to be a completely different basketball team.”
For now, the Vikings will have to settle for being different on Monday, when they visit Milwaukee to close their season-long five-game road trip.