Two times this season the Cleveland State Vikings had the lead with less than a minute to go against the conference leader and rival Butler. Two times, they lost. CSU head coach Gary Waters was determined to not let this happen again. As he told his team before the game (caught by the ESPN cameras) “two times we had these guys, and we let them get away.”
This time they didn’t.
The third time was indeed the charm for Waters and his team. After trailing for most of the first 30 minutes, Tournament MVP Cedric Jackson hit one of his four threes to put the Vikings ahead for good and send them to their first NCAA Tournament in 23 years. They did it in typical Cleveland State fashion under the direction of Waters; stingy defense and quality offensive possessions.
Jackson put on perhaps his best performance of his Viking career. The senior St. John’s transfer played all 40 minutes and controlled the game on both ends. He led all scorers with 19 points, dished out eight assists, and grabbed seven boards. His back to back threes with CSU down six were a part of an 8-0 which tied the score at 28 late in the first half. You could see the calm, cool, play of a Senior who knew this was his last shot at the big dance. “We wanted to be aggressive and I had to step up. It feels so good,” said Cedric after the game.
It didn’t look good for a while as star J’Nathan Bullock struggled most of the night in the face of constant double teams everytime he touched the ball in the post. He shot just 4-12 from the floor and Waters even sat him at key times down the stretch in favor of the post duo of George Tandy and Chris Moore, who were superb defending Horizon League Player of the Year. Not only did Jackson step forward, but the the unsung hero of this CSU victory was Freshman Guard Jeremy Montgomery.
The precocious kid from Chicago is known as the Vikings best deep threat and he certainly didn’t disappoint. Playing without defensive stopper D’Aundrey Brown and with starter Trey Harmon saddled with three fouls early in the second half, Waters turned to Montgomery and he responded. The Lefty stroked three huge threes and finished with 11 points in a key 21 minutes of play off the bench. His triple gave CSU its first lead since the early in the game at 47-45 with just over 11 minutes remaining.
In a game where the officiating was extremely spotty on both ends (the third foul calls on Bullock and Howard were as bad as they get), credit Tandy, Moore, and Bullock for keeping Howard at bay. He scored right at his average, 14 points, but he had to work extremely hard to get them. He had a tough time with the size and athleticism of Tandy and the physicality of Moore and Bullock.
Defensive credit must also go to Waters, who twice in the second half junked his classic man to man style for a triangle and two on Howard and Shelvin Mack (with Jackson and Tandy) and a diamond and one on Mack (with Jackson) after Mack torched the Vikings for 15 points in the first 26 minutes. He didn’t hit a field goal in the final 16 minutes of the game.
After a Jackson layup with 4:55 remaining, CSU was clinging to a 56-50 lead and began to take the air out of the ball on each offensive possession. Said Waters: “Our goal was to control the tempo at that point. If we cut the clock down and got it under three minutes, we would win. It was the defense that won it.” It wasn’t the best strategy in the world at that point (or at least it seemed that way to me), but with the defense the Vikings were playing, it worked. Gordon Hayward’s one-handed tip-in with 6:20 left was the last field goal Butler would make.
Norris Cole’s perfect reading of the passing lanes gave Cleveland State a shot to ice the game at the line with 14 seconds left up two. Cole split a pair at the line, giving Butler one last shot to send the game to OT.That one last shot turned into three. Mack misfired on a contested three, but Hayward grabbed the offensive board. He trey attempt was off the mark as well, but Shawn Vanzant was their to grab the rebound, he made a third attempt to tie the game, but the ball slipped from his hands as the clock hit zero.The Vikings rushed the floor in jubilation.
Coach Gary Waters threw his arms to the sky in celebration. Nobody deserved this one more than he did. It has taken him just three seasons to turn a dead program into an NCAA Tournament team. He has worked so hard to give his players the reasons to believe. They came through for him and he came through for them.
Said a proud Waters after the game: “These guys are a bunch of fighters and they persevered.”
Congrats to the entire Cleveland State program for punching their ticket to the NCAA Tournament. Somewhere in Indiana, Kevin Mackey is smiling.