Somewhere between Green Bay and Milwaukee, on a quiet stretch of I-43 with Lake Michigan on one side and dairy farms on the other, exit 137 leads motorists towards a small town named Cleveland (after Grover, for reasons unknown, given that the former president was from New York). It’s not far from Sheboygan, where Gus Polinski and the Kenosha Kickers once found fame and fortune – in fact, if you’re from Cleveland, you probably attended high school in Sheboygan.
The road that connects exit 137 and Cleveland? Route XX.
The metaphor, applied to the Division I basketball team from Cleveland, Ohio, is perfect on several dimensions, if a bit (okay, extremely) heavy-handed, particularly given the myriad uses of the letter X.
Could those Xs be algebraic variables, reflecting a Cleveland State team that still feels like an unknown quantity? Were those Xs big and red, flashing on the screen Family Feud-style after CSU’s latest wrong answer against Green Bay, outside of the Horizon League tournament? Were they foretelling death to the Vikings’ regular season title chances like a pair of cartoon eyes, now that the Phoenix decidedly has a leg up in the race? Maybe they were “close” icons, representing the idea that the CSU needed to quickly X out of a disappointing loss to be ready for a tough Milwaukee team.
Somewhere between Green Bay and Milwaukee, all of those things seemed to apply. And even though the Wisconsin quirk of lettered highways can’t be found in Illinois, Indiana or Ohio, it still feels like the Clevelanders are linked to Route XX after escaping the Klotsche Center with a hard-earned 64-59 victory over Milwaukee on New Year’s Day.
Though the Vikings only trailed for 16 seconds of the game and slowly pushed ahead by as many as 12 late in the third quarter, the affair nearly veered into disaster when Panthers pieced together a late 10-2 run to close to within two points with 36 seconds remaining.
That abruptly-desperate situation demanded the heroics of Carmen Villalobos.
Villalobos was already well-noted for colossal shots in tense moments. In just her third game as a Viking last season, the Spaniard knocked down an overtime-forcing triple at DePaul that ultimately made CSU’s first victory against a power conference opponent in a decade possible. And for head coach Chris Kielsmeier, there was little doubt that the ball would end up in her hands again.
“Carmen’s hit so many big shots for this program in timely situations like that,” he said. “As a coach, you’ve gotta know who wants the ball in their hands in those situations, and Carmen does it all the time in practice.”
“She has as much heart, passion, fight, desire to be successful as probably any kid I’ve ever coached. She speaks in the locker room with so much passion, she just wants it. She understands what we need, and what has to be done in every situation, most every time. She’s definitely the glue of the program for us.”
The play itself was simple enough. Milwaukee elected against fouling, so Vikings point guard Colbi Maples ran the clock as much as she possibly could. Then, at a well-rehearsed moment, she activated, using a ball screen from Jordana Reisma to get towards the basket before kicking out to Villalobos in the corner, right in front of the Cleveland State bench.
“We spend a lot of time working on end of quarters and end of game situations – the plays that we’re going to run [and] if we have to have a certain score or time are scripted, and our players know it,” Kielsmeier explained. “They chose not to foul, so we’re going to sit on that clock. We’re going to have a high ball screen and spread it, and just trust that Colbi’s going to be able to make a play off of it. Then, you’ve gotta hit the shot.”
It was a highlight-reel ending to an otherwise-ugly afternoon that bore little resemblance to CSU’s three fairly-comfortable victories over Milwaukee last season, the last of which took place in the Horizon League tournament’s quarterfinal round. Despite runs of 8-0 in the first quarter, 7-0 in the second quarter and 14-4 in the third quarter, the Vikings never seemed to be able to stay distant for very long.
A lot of that had to do with Anna Lutz, who led the Panthers with 23 points and ten rebounds during a game where CSU held preseason all-conference selection Kendall Nead to just 2-for-17 from the floor. But just as much, Kielsmeier believes, had to do with the familiarity that HL foes have with his team’s style of play.
“They scheme, take away a lot of stuff that you’re looking for,” he said. “Our new players are getting welcomed to the Horizon League, where some of the stuff that we were getting earlier in the year, it was easier for them, but it’s being taken away because teams understand each other well in the league.”
“Milwaukee’s got five experienced starters who have played a lot of basketball in this league, that know how to play against us, and we don’t have that. We continue to have to strive to overcome that, and at some point, we’re going to play way better than what we are right now. We just have to find a way to win, and if it’s ugly, it’s ugly.”
To his point, the Panthers seemed well-prepared for the Vikings’ attempts to drive the basket, as the home bench yelled frequent reminders to the players on the floor to watch for isos, leading to several drawn charges, turnovers, and other forms of offensive misery for CSU. They also, as is characteristic of the program run by UWM coach Kyle Rechlicz, battled on the glass and held one of the nation’s better rebounding teams to a stalemate, while limiting catastrophic turnovers with quick baskets attached, which often result in 20-point Cleveland State leads.
“Teams know we’re going to go to the basket, and we’re trying to learn when we need to kick out more,” Kielsmeier said, about 30 minutes after Maples did exactly that on the clinching basket. “We’re still struggling with that, we have so many playmakers on the outside that are trained to go score, go score, go score. We’re playing into mistakes like that, but again, it’s a young basketball team that’s heard for six months from this coaching staff, ‘go to the basket, go to the basket, go to the basket.’ We have to adjust.”
Mickayla Perdue continued her star ascension with a game-high 24 points, ten of those on free throws following most of the seven fouls she drew during the afternoon. Reisma, a graduate of nearby Brown Deer High School, added 15 and five rebounds in her homecoming effort, while Sara Guerreiro chipped in five rebounds and nine points, most in the early going as CSU shook off the cobwebs of the disappointing effort at Green Bay two days prior.
That all added up to a win that moved the Vikings to 12-3 overall and 3-1 in the Horizon League. It certainly wasn’t the sort of inspired thumping that reveals a turning lane away from Route XX, but for now, it works well enough. And “well enough” is perfectly fine with Kielsmeier, who is thrilled to finally return to the Wolstein Center for four of the next five games following a brutal road stretch.
“It’s hard to do what we just did,” he said. “You have five games, and then you sprinkle Christmas in there, that really was another road trip for everybody. And then you have to get back to Cleveland, and then you have to get back out of Cleveland.”
“To come out of it 3-2 against the teams that we played, you’ve gotta feel good about it. But now we have to get back home, and we have to get better.”