Cleveland State is having fun right now, which means most of the Vikings’ opponents aren’t.
Certainly, it’s hard for a team in CSU’s situation to avoid a good time. Thanks to a 90-58 victory over IUPUI on Saturday evening in the Wolstein Center, that reality now includes a six-game winning streak and a first-place tie in the Horizon League standings, the latter fact helped along by Oakland’s upset of Green Bay earlier in the day.
But something feels a little bit different about the Vikings, from the way head coach Chris Kielsmeier – a guy who’s been at it for a couple decades – has repeatedly praised his team’s off-court connectedness as exceptional, to the way those players jokingly banter with each other over various details and plays immediately after games.
Even those competing for playing time often set shared goals for their position groups to elevate the stakes a bit before taking the court. For Colbi Maples and Mickayla Perdue, steals are often the focus, while post players like Jordana Reisma and Brooklynn Fort-Davis concentrate on rebounds.
That translates into an extremely supportive bench, regardless of who’s getting the minutes that day.
“If I’m in the game, I’m hearing [Jordana] and Paulina [Hernandez] cheering, we just kind of motivate each other. Whoever’s out on the floor, we want them to do the best,” Fort-Davis said.
From Kielsmeier’s point of view, the Vikings’ constant youthful enthusiasm is a separator as well.
“Their personality and how much energy they bring into the building every day,” he said, when asked his favorite thing about coaching this edition of Cleveland State’s squad. “You don’t have to wind them up to be excited to be here. They make you laugh, they’re so funny, they jab each other a little bit. It’s just fun to see young kids be that focused and that energized on a day-to-day basis.”
“We spend a lot of time together,” Fort-Davis added. “After our games, the coaches have to be like ‘get away from the game, get away from each other.’ But I think that [time together] helps us on the court, and I think we genuinely want each other to do well. If I’m not having a good day, I want somebody else to do well.”
Perdue and Maples are certainly having fun, to say the least. The starting backcourt duo once again had their swarming defense-to-offense effort in top form against IUPUI while firing for 22 and 20 points respectively, many of which were fed by their combined six steals. In all, CSU scored a staggering 42 points off of turnovers.
“They’re fun to watch, I’ll be looking left and right, and next thing you know, one of them is taking the ball out of somebody’s hands, then they’re gone on the 2-on-1.” Fort-Davis said. “It’s nice to watch them play and it’s nice to watch them evolve. Especially with us being here since the summertime, and being able to watch them get really good in the system.”
Maples was also the lead instructor for Cleveland State’s foul shooting clinic, as the point guard hit on ten of her 11 tries from the stripe, generally after being knocked over on one of her numerous drives to the basket. CSU got off to a bit of a slow start offensively, but those free throws proved to be a consistently reliable source of points, standing as 11 of the green and white’s 19 in the first quarter and a whopping 31 of 90 by the end of the game. Perdue and Sara Guerreiro each made five free throws, but nine of the ten Vikings who played at least four minutes on Saturday had at least one.
IUPUI, meanwhile, was paced by Katie Davidson, who exploded out of the gate with 11 first-quarter points on 5-for-6 shooting, an effort that nearly singlehandedly kept the Jags in the game early on. However, the Horizon League’s leading scorer was held to just six points after that, and was just 2-for-9 from the floor after the opening ten minutes.
“She’s a really good player, so she’s going to hit some shots and make some plays,” Kielsmeier said. “They cut her, and I think she just kind of cut on her own into a lot of areas that can be difficult to shift and pick up. I don’t think we were really ready for that. The scout and whatnot was spot-on, but then you get out there and you’re playing against a kid for the first time and it’s ‘whoa geez, she’s even better than what you thought she was.’ But we got out players to understand how much quicker you gotta get on those cuts.”
After that adjustment, the Jaguars found some success later on through a formidable frontcourt that includes players like all-league selection Jazmyn Turner, Abby Wolterman and Tahlia Walton. That trio accounted for 32 points, nearly all of IUPUI’s offense outside of Davidson, and helped the visitors nearly match the Vikings’ scoring from within the paint.
“Their high post, they’ll send anybody in there,” Fort-Davis said. “They have very shifty guards, that was kind of hard today, and they also cut a lot. So even when you’re on one cover, they might send two or three people into the paint, so you kind of have to cover a lot of ground.”
Ultimately though, IUPUI was overwhelmed by too many turnovers, too many fouls and, yes, too much fun.
“I think that we’re having a lot of fun because we’re winning, first and foremost,” Fort-Davis said.
Okay, fair enough, that certainly never hurts and regardless, arguing with a Howard graduate is not something to be done lightly. It’s always been true that most issues that might otherwise drive wedges into a roster are corrected by winning.
Fortunately for the Vikings, now 17-3 overall and 8-1 in the Horizon League, they’re doing plenty of that.