Cleveland State doesn’t get to run victory laps on Green Bay. They just don’t.
Not Green Bay, which has spent most of the last quarter century kicking sand in the collective face of the Horizon League, including 22 regular season championships and 16 tournament titles, all since 1996.
Not Green Bay, which built a 72-10 lead in the all-time series against CSU, most of it over that same span. Vikings wins against the Phoenix are rare to the point where each is individually memorable, displayed like precious gemstones in the crowns of what have often been the best seasons in Cleveland State history – in fact, three of those ten victories were Horizon League tournament upsets that directly enabled each of CSU’s three NCAA Tournament appearances.
And especially not this Green Bay, which has a core packed with third and fourth-year players in Kevin Borseth’s program, including stars like Cassie Schiltz, Bailey Butler, Jasmine Kondrakiewicz and Maddy Schreiber.
Accordingly, the Phoenix has looked like a dominant team all season, not only in the conference, but nationally as well. Green Bay toppled ranked power conference teams Creighton and Washington State by double digits early in the schedule, and largely because of those wins, the squad has held a NET ranking in the mid-30s over the last two months. They’ve generally been projected to qualify for the NCAA Tournament regardless of whether they ultimately win at the conference tournament next month, nearly unthinkable for a Horizon League squad. And, oh yeah, they notched their 72nd win against the Vikings on December 30th at the Kress Center, an 85-72 result which didn’t feel that close by the end of the evening.
“Green Bay’s been the gold standard of the league in the past, there’s no doubt about that,” CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier admitted, with the tone of a guy who’s been on the wrong side of a piece of that legacy.
Then suddenly, on one charmed Saturday afternoon at the Wolstein Center, Cleveland State sent the tail end of their bench into the game during the final minute to polish off an 86-63 win over the Phoenix, the closest thing basketball has to a victory lap, a symbolic “we clobbered you and everyone knows it.”
It’s impossible to say how and why forces, both cosmic and terrestrial, align to produce any sports result that flies against expectations that decisively, so maybe the Vikings’ 20th victory this season was Destiny Leo’s doing.
The 2022-23 Horizon League player of the year, felled since November with an ACL tear, has found ways to contribute to the team off the court during her rehabilitation, including charting shots during games. Prior to the showdown with Green Bay, she added another important responsibility: picking the pregame music, thanks to Kielsmeier’s hunch.
“One of her biggest impacts was that she picked the songs for pregame today,” Kielsmeier said. “Coach Shelby [Zoeckler] does the pregame mixes for us, she does an incredible job, and the first time all year, I said to her last night ‘I’m not feeling this one, I don’t think it’s good enough.’ I’ve never done that to Shelby before.”
“So Shelby said ‘I’m going to call Destiny, I’m going to get Destiny involved in this.’ Destiny knows the song mixes, she knows what they want, and they just were hyped.”
Could it have been a few more great plays from someone who’s made a ton of them during her decorated career? Most may not think it possible, but if many of the best athletes and coaches in the world believe in the power of superstitions and things that, by any rational measure, have no impact on a basketball game, who are the rest of us to argue?
Of course, Mickayla Perdue, Leo’s replacement in the starting lineup, may have had a little bit to do with it too.
Perdue fired in a career-high-equaling 30 points against the Phoenix, thanks mostly to a 7-for-8 effort from three-point range that stands as the best deep-shooting game of the senior’s career – quite a statement to make about a player who led Division II in made three-pointers while at Glenville State last year.
In fact, the numbers would have been even better had one of her threes not been wiped out by an offensive foul away from the play. Or if she had decided to rise and fire the commemorative ball she was presented before the game for scoring her 1,000th career point at Detroit Mercy last weekend, though she showed restraint during the brief ceremony.
“I was feeling it today,” she said. “Once I hit that first one, I just knew my shot felt good.”
“Honestly, I just shoot. I just go out there and shoot the ball. If it goes in, great, if I miss, then on to the next one, shoot it again.”
It was just about all great for Perdue.
She was hardly the only Cleveland Stater who was hot from distance, though. Colbi Maples was 3-for-4 from behind the arc, representing nearly half of her 21 points. Sara Guerreiro was 4-for-6 from deep, a third major contributor to a team-wide 15-for-23 effort, the Vikings’ most made threes in a game since knocking down a program-record-tying 17 against Valparaiso almost exactly ten years ago, on February 13, 2014.
It’s a strategy that isn’t necessarily CSU’s preferred plan of attack, but against a Green Bay team that shuts down drives to the basket and limits free throw attempts uniquely well of the teams on the Vikings’ schedule, it’s the best option.
“As a coaching staff, we build the roster and build the team every year with the goal to be able to play many different ways on any given night,” Kielsmeier said. “So you need versatile players that can go out and be able to create that. The fourth quarter, we scored 28 points and didn’t go to the free throw line one time. That’s not Cleveland State women’s basketball, but some nights it has to be, depending on how the defense is defending us. Against Green Bay, you’ve gotta let ‘em fly.”
“We just stepped up, we played with a lot of confidence, so those people that score the ball, that’s what they are here to do,” Perdue added. “They know that we need points on the board, and they go out there and they make plays.”
The three-balls always seemed to be particularly well-timed, from the opening moments of the game when a pair by Perdue and one from Maples staked the Vikings to a 9-2 lead that they would never relinquish. Perdue hit two more in a row later in that first quarter to push the score to 20-12, while a Guerreiro strike off of a drive-and-kick by Maples helped fend off GB’s mid-second-quarter push, part of what allowed CSU to take a 37-30 lead into halftime.
The Phoenix made their final notable efforts at wrestling the game away during the third quarter when they trimmed the lead to five points twice in the final three minutes, largely behind Natalie McNeal’s nearly unstoppable mid-range efforts on the way to a career-high 30 points. However, each time, they were met with another Viking bomb, first by Perdue, then by Guerreiro off the glass late in the frame.
“One of the main things we talked about in the locker room before the game was not being so tense, just playing loose,” Perdue said of her team’s ability to succeed in some of those tight moments. “I was telling them to have fun. When we have fun, that’s when we play our best games. When we are out there screaming for each other, cheering for each other, that’s when we have our best games. Our focus was just A-1 today.”
Guerreiro opened the fourth quarter with another splashdown to hoist the lead back to ten points and signal an incoming tidal wave that turned the contest into a laugher – perhaps deceptively so – leading to the last four points of the game coming from Paulina Hernandez and Kali Howard as part of CSU’s late-game flex.
The victory moves Cleveland State into first place in the Horizon League standings, with their 11-2 record one-half game ahead of the Phoenix’s 10-2 mark. And now that their most daunting challenge is behind them, the Vikings are positioned to claim at least a share of the HL regular season title if they navigate their final seven league games successfully. It would be the first such banner in program history.
Hey, even Green Bay had to start somewhere.