On Wednesday night in the Hilliard Gates Sports Center, Purdue Fort Wayne began their game against Cleveland State on a 9-0 run.
That score was concerning enough for the Vikings, but the early trends were alarming as well. Shayla Sellers, one of the ringleaders of PFW’s prolific three-point-shooting roster, had already connected from deep. Amellia Bromenschenkel, the Mastodons’ leading scorer, had wriggled through on one of her uniquely slippery drives.
Perhaps worst of all, 6-2 forward Jazzlyn Linbo – who had one of the best games of her career with 20 points and 12 rebounds against CSU at the Wolstein Center on January 13th – was well on her way to another big night. She drew early fouls against two important Vikings, Jordana Reisma and Sara Guerreiro, converting one into a three-point play and the other into a single free throw.
When Cleveland State gets off to a good start in a game, head coach Chris Kielsmeier won’t hesitate to leave his starters in for as long as possible, sometimes right up until the point where keeping them on the floor any further without a break would hurt the team later in the game. Conversely, when the Vikings open by giving up nine straight points, Kielsmeier is just as quick to look to his bench.
With Linbo off to a particularly strong start, the post players received the most scrutiny. Reisma quickly headed to the bench after her foul, and Reisma’s substitute, Brooklynn Fort-Davis met the same fate after a couple turnovers.
Next up were Paulina Hernandez and Faith Burch, who finally provided a satisfactory answer. Shortly after their respective entries, CSU launched a 15-0 run to improbably close the opening quarter with an 18-14 advantage, on the way to a 70-60 win that improved their record to 19-4 (10-2 Horizon League).
“We’ve got 13 really good players, I trust and believe in each one of them,” Kielsmeier said. “You’ve just gotta stay the course and be ready when your number’s called, and be ready to impact the game. For some of these kids that haven’t had an opportunity a lot lately, can you settle in and make that happen? Those two certainly provided a huge spark.”
“They stabilized our defense. Paulina’s size and length gave them some trouble, and we got some key rebounds,” he added, while pointing out that the pair was also able to convert some of the buckets that the Vikings missed early in the game.
The frontcourt reserves each played for most of the last 15 minutes of the first half and combined for eight points and seven rebounds during those opening two quarters.
Their unsung, but game-altering presence was punctuated by something of a curtain call, when they were inserted for a defensive possession to close the half. Appropriately enough, Hernandez stuffed Linbo near the low block as the buzzer sounded to help CSU secure an 11-point lead into the break. The freshman from the Milwaukee area was a game-high plus-10 at halftime, while Burch was right behind her at plus-9.
“It can be hard to impact the game in a short period of time, but every single player that played tonight impacted the game, and the ones that didn’t get to play a whole lot impacted the game from the bench, I thought our energy on the bench was outstanding,” Kielsmeier said.
Once the Vikings locked down the middle of the floor, their starting backcourt of Colbi Maples and Mickayla Perdue was able to fully activate. Perdue wound up with a game-high 20 points after being held scoreless for the first 15 minutes of the game, while Maples added 17 tallies with five assists and two steals. As usual, the duo fed off each other, as seemingly every Mastodons miss had the potential to turn into a runout and quick points the other way.
“Their two guards, Colbi and Mickayla, are probably two of the best downhill guards, if not the two best downhill guards, in our league,” Purdue Fort Wayne coach Maria Marchesano said. “They’re really hard to contain. [On January 13th] we did a good job of being in our help, being in our plugs, today we didn’t, and that really was the difference in the game.”
Freshman Renna Schwieterman led the Dons with 11 points (in just 12:29 on the floor), while Linbo, Bromenschenkel and Sellers (who also had six steals and four assists) each added ten. Crucially, however, PFW was just 8-for-30 from three-point range. For a team that typically hits about one-third of its tries, a couple more makes could have drastically changed the complexion of a contest where CSU never trailed after the first quarter, but also never built a lead that felt completely inaccessible for the home team.
“We never settled into our offensive schemes, our offensive strategies for this game,” Marchesano said. “The points that we had, we had to manufacture in ways that just weren’t fluid, and you saw that we were rattled out there.”
“Thirty [three-point] attempts is way too many, that’s not what we want” Kielsmeier offered, presenting something of a counterpoint to Marchesano’s assessment. “But they’re also going to let it fly. We certainly needed to cover some of them better than we did, but we won the game.”
That Cleveland State did, with an effort that was flawed, but certainly much more aesthetically acceptable than either of last week’s games in Michigan, including an upset loss to Detroit Mercy. The Vikings will need more of the same – and then some – on Saturday, when first-place Green Bay visits.