Vikings survive fatigue, Youngstown State for 26th win

Photo: Cleveland State Athletics

When the buzzer sounded after Malia Magestro’s last-ditch 30-foot attempt to force overtime missed by about six inches, Carmen Villalobos threw a leaping fist pump, then hugged Colbi Maples. Mickayla Perdue let out a yell, then walked away from the scene clapping her hands. Sara Guerreiro took off on a dead sprint down the sideline towards her teammates on the bench.

Jordana Reisma? She looked like she needed a bit more time to process what just happened, understandably so, after her Cleveland State team narrowly survived Youngstown State by a 56-53 count on Tuesday night in YSU’s Beeghly Center.

The result, which kept the Vikings’ Horizon League regular season title hopes intact and moved their record to 26-4 (17-2 HL), defied circumstances, logic and statistics in at least a few ways.

A decent place to start is Cleveland State’s schedule, which dropped the meeting with the Penguins at the end of a three-game road trip that also included visits to IUPUI and Robert Morris within the previous seven days. The toughest of those three contests, against a rival team that had won five of its previous six, was held for the moment when fatigue was at its most dangerous.

“We had been on the road and together for nine straight days,” Vikings head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “That’s really hard physically, but it’s also really hard mentally. Most of the night, we were out of sync, missed a ton of easy shots, threw the ball all over the place, and just had a lot of things that were very uncharacteristic to this team.”

“You’re just not meant to be on the road and do what we’ve done the last nine days. That’s not normal living.”

To Kielsmeier’s point, CSU turned the ball over 17 times and logged a field goal accuracy of just 29.3 percent for the evening, including a putrid 17.9 percent in a first half that nevertheless saw the visitors take a 21-19 lead into the locker room.

Youngstown State’s 6-5 post player, Emily Saunders, had more than a little to do with those numbers, as she officially recorded three blocked shots and unofficially altered numerous others, often taking away the paint, the Vikings’ preferred method of scoring. But plenty of it was simply a case of the yips.

“We had some point-blank shots that these kids will make ten times out of ten, and we just missed them,” Kielsmeier said. “That was the type of night it was for us, to fight the game.”

Though YSU didn’t shoot the ball particularly well either, the Guins appeared to snap out of their funk first. Magestro (who finished with ten points, six assists, and three steals) hit a pair of important first-half three-pointers, while reigning conference player of the week Dena Jarrells (13 points, six rebounds, three assists) connected on a couple in the second half.

Shay-Lee Kirby hit the biggest shot of all, a half-court heave that beat the third quarter’s expiration, launched the vast majority of the game’s 1,947 spectators to their feet, and gave YSU a 39-38 lead with ten minutes to play.

The Penguins’ roof-raising moment turned into something of a gut check for Cleveland State during the quarter break, however, as a poorly-run press made Kirby’s shot attempt possible.

“We were really passive all night, and that’s just not Cleveland State women’s basketball in any way,” Kielsmeier lamented.

The Vikings would execute much better, for the most part, from that point on.

Forward Faith Burch, a native of nearby Warren and the favorite player of a packed corner section of friends and family waving around pictures of the redshirt sophomore’s face, was involved in a pivotal fourth quarter moment. With 7:27 remaining, and the score tied 41-41, she drew an offensive foul to Saunders, a third infraction on the one-time Tennessee Lady Vol. Saunders, in a show of annoyance with the call, pushed Burch away from her, then got into a shouting match with Perdue, who stepped in to back her teammate.

Both Saunders and Perdue were slapped with technical fouls, forcing the former to the brink of disqualification and, temporarily, to the Youngstown State bench.

Almost immediately, the middle of the floor opened up, and the Vikings went on a 10-2 run. The spurt started with a pair of Maples drives through the paint that drew fouls and produced five of her game-high 18 points, then finished with a Perdue three-pointer.

YSU’s acting head coach John Nicolais spotted the obvious trend and put Saunders back in the game, but she quickly fouled out, on yet another whistle drawn by Burch.

Beyond her contributions to the disqualification of one of YSU’s most significant players, Burch added six points and 11 rebounds, the latter number equaling Reisma’s count as the contest’s high-water mark.

“Faith just plays so hard,” Kielsmeier said. “She had a huge crowd here tonight. She has worked so hard for this program, and she deserved a moment like this. I really believe that she’ll remember tonight for the rest of her life, and I think she’ll be telling stories about this to a lot of people 50 years from now.”

The Penguins had one final push just after CSU built its largest lead of the night though, fueled largely by threes from Kirby and Jarrells. After a subsequent Magestro bucket pulled YSU within three, an offensive foul on Maples gave the Penguins the ball back with 11.4 seconds remaining.

Unlike the disastrous close to the third quarter, the Vikings were fully engaged for the final sequence.

“I don’t know that we could’ve forced much more of a tough shot than what we did at the end,” Kielsmeier said. “I’m very proud of our players for getting through this stretch and finding a way to get this done to this point.”

The victory sets up a massive regular season finale at the Wolstein Center on Saturday, with Northern Kentucky visting, and the Vikings simply needing one more win to earn a share of the Horizon League regular season title. The idea that Saturday couldn’t happen without Tuesday’s ugly success wasn’t lost on Kielsmeier though.

“Sometimes you gotta find a way to win games like this to do something really special, and that’s what we did tonight,” he said.

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