The last time Cleveland State was in first place, the Vikings’ run atop the Horizon League standings ended after a week; seven days after an Oakland upset of Green Bay opened that door, CSU similarly stubbed its toe in Metro Detroit and ceded its share of the lead back to the Phoenix.
On Wednesday night, the Vikings saw to it that earning their perch back the hard way – with a win directly over their Titletown rivals on Saturday – would endure for longer than that, thanks to a 71-59 victory against Wright State at the Wolstein Center.
It certainly wasn’t easy, given the opponent, a Raiders program that matches up well with CSU in certain ways and presents a good argument to be the HL’s best team outside of Cleveland State and Green Bay. It was a bit ugly too, especially as WSU did a much better job of cutting off the Vikings from running through the middle of the floor as effortlessly as they had in other recent meetings between the Ohio schools. Wright State also managed to attempt 34 three-pointers, well within the comfort zone for a team that ranks 20th nationally in the category.
“Everybody’s desperate for wins,” CSU coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “We have to understand that we’re going to get teams’ best shots. I thought Wright State played really well, I thought they defended us really well.”
Given the outside circumstances, some might even call it a trap game, as it was wedged between the season-altering afternoon against the Phoenix and an eight-day layoff built into the schedule.
The good news for Kielsmeier’s squad is that it has the sort of defense and leadership that can navigate less-than-ideal conditions, whether things are at their best on any given day or not.
“That win is in the past, you know?” one of those leaders, Carmen Villalobos, said of Saturday’s outcome against Green Bay. “We’re going to focus on the present, take it game by game, and the next game on the schedule is the most important one, and we know what it takes.”
What it took on Wednesday was an awful lot of Colbi Maples. The junior point guard had one of her better all-around games of the season in scoring 16 points, while adding five assists and two steals.
She tended to show up emphatically during the game’s major leverage points, often with her passing.
Late in a tight first quarter, she flipped a Grace Ellis rebound ahead to Faith Burch for a layup, with touch worthy of a Patrick Mahomes air strike. She opened the second quarter by dropping the ball to Jordana Reisma on the block, which turned into an and-one and a 21-16 Vikings lead. Another helper, a drive-and-kick to Sara Guerreiro, produced a three-pointer and a 48-39 lead during an important third quarter run.
Maples’ assist to Reisma with 2:52 to go, a baseline drive that turned into another three-point play, made the score 70-57, and unofficially locked the result in.
“She got a couple really big steals in that second half, and she had a couple really drop-a-dime passes in big situations, in big moments,” Kielsmeier said, citing the latter play to Reisma as one of them. “Colbi’s so good in so many areas of the game that you can scheme and get creative as a coach to put her in a lot of different areas and make it hard for teams to be able to contain her all over the court.”
“I don’t think Colbi’s getting enough credit for what she does when she’s not scoring. She’s an elite point guard, and she’s going to get that ball where it needs to go. And she’s maybe an all-conference defender.”
The victory that moved Cleveland State to 21-4 overall also required a flawed, but ultimately effective, effort on the defensive end, spearheaded by Maples, Guerreiro, Villalobos – who had seven rebounds, six assists and five steals – and Shadiya Thomas.
CSU was largely able to neutralize Raiders star Alexis Hutchison, who averages 19.3 points per game this season, the most of any Horizon League player. Hutchison scored eight of WSU’s first ten points before managing just one late-game bucket following the opening five minutes of the contest. The former Malone guard still managed to facilitate for plenty of her teammates though, as she fired off seven assists to the likes of Layne Ferrell (5-fo-7 from three-point range, a game-high 17 points) and Lauren Scott (3-for-7 from deep, nine points).
The Vikings limited Wright State to only a pair of Scott threes over the first nine minutes of the second quarter while building a 35-22 lead that would last, more or less intact, for the rest of the evening. The primary exception was a 7-0 Raiders run, powered by Ferrell and Rachel Loobie, that trimmed the lead to three in the third quarter, but CSU immediately clamped down for a 12-4 swing in response to climb back to safety. Both decisive surges included plenty of key defensive plays, including Maples’ steal-and-score to punctuate the latter rally.
“The most important part of our defense is the ball pressure,” Villalobos explained. “When we have that, our defense is on fire and we’re able to turn teams over. That’s the most important thing, when we have that ball pressure and can get transition layups.”
“It starts with [the guards], but the wings and [Reisma] too in the middle. It’s just important when everyone is getting the ball pressure, it’s a team thing, you know?”
The eight-day break before the Vikings next game, against Oakland on February 15th, should be useful for players like Mickayla Perdue, who was banged up during the second quarter but played through it for the remainder of the contest, as well as for Kielsmeier, who was frustrated by his team allowing 34 three-point attempts.
“We ain’t running zone to get lit up from the outside,” he said. “We’re running zone for a lot of different reasons, but when we’re at our best, those three balls shouldn’t go up. We made a lot of mistakes on some simple stuff that allowed them to get some really good looks. If they make a couple more threes, who knows what the outcome of the game is.”
Ultimately though, the coach was able to appreciate the idea that ugly wins are still wins.
“It’s a double-digit win against one of the best teams in the league, so we must have done something right,” he finally admitted.