This is part two in our ten-part series chronicling the top 10 moments/stories in Cleveland sports during the 2009 Calendar year. We started yesterday with The Indians 10 run comeback win over Tampa Bay, and we will continue with today’s selection.
#9 Cleveland State’s run to the NCAA Tournament and their upset over fourth seeded Wake Forest
1986 was a long, long time ago for followers of the Cleveland State basketball program. The success of Kevin Mackey’s “Run and Stun” teams produced a new building in the Convocation Center, now known as the Wolstein Center. The thought was that the program would take off after the run of great teams that always competed for the AMCU-8 title. However, that success never sustained.
Cleveland State had become an after-thought under Mike Boyd, Rollie Massimino, and Mike Garland. When former Kent State and Rutgers head coach Gary Waters took over, he vowed to have the Vikings back at the top of the Horizon League. He followed through on his promise in 2009.
The first signs that Waters’s veteran team was something special was when they went into the Carrier Dome and led the then-11th ranked Syracuse Orange the majority of the game. Cedric Jackson’s three-quarter court heave at the buzzer stunned the Cuse and gave the Vikes a 72-69 win. They took that win and ran with it. CSU catapulted to the top of their conference, battling nationally ranked Butler for H-League supremacy.
Twice the Vikings were locked in tight games with Butler during the regular season. Twice they lost. In the first meeting in Cleveland, CSU held a one point lead with five seconds to go, a great defensive stand was ruined when Butler’s Zach Hahn grabbed a loose ball and hit a three at the buzzer to beat the Vikings 50-48. In the return match in Indy, again, the Vikings battled to the end. They led 56-54 with less than a minute remaining, but couldn’t hang on, losing to the 25-4 Bulldogs 58-56. A Norris Cole three for the win rimmed out, but Waters and his gritty team knew they would get a third shot at Butler in the Horizon League tournament.
Sure enough, the top two seeds, Butler and Cleveland State, would meet again in the championship game with an NCAA Tournament bid on the line for the Vikes. The Bulldogs were already a lock. CSU got their by winning three games in five nights against Detroit, UIC, and Green Bay. The title game was played on the Bulldogs home floor of Hinkle Fieldhouse. While Butler was led by conference Player of the Year Matt Howard and Freshman of the year Gordon Hayward, the gritty, lunch-pail Vikings were a true “team.”
Like the first two games, the Vikings and Bulldogs were neck and neck with Butler leading 32-28 at the half. During the break, the Vikes turned up the intensity. As I wrote the next day:
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.
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.”
The Vikings were a team that nobody wanted to draw in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. They soon enough would show the country why. The senior-laden crew of Jackson, J’Nathan Bullock, George Tandy, and Chris Moore, along with Trey Harmon, Cole, and Jeremy Montgomery were given a 13 seed in the Midwest. They would get the #4 seed and uber-athletic Wake Forest Demon Deacons, led by All-American guard Jeff Teague and freshman phenom Al-Farouq Aminu.
While the Deacons had the ACC pedigree with athletes galore, they were ill-prepared for the precision and strength of the undersized CSU Vikings. Led by the Cole (22 points) and Bullock (21 points) duo on the offensive end and the overall game of Jackson (19 points, 8 assists, 7 rebounds, 3 steals), the Vikes throttled Wake Forest 84-69 in Miami in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score may dictate. It was a pure, unadulterated blow out of a team with Final Four aspirations. That didn’t matter to Waters’s bunch.
“We believed from the start of the game that we could play with this team,” Cole said.
“I’m sorry to a lot of people that we broke their brackets,” Tandy said. “But we had a lot of confidence. We were prepared.”
“We had to hit them early in order to be in that game,” Waters said. “We surprised them. It took them a while to realize what was occurring out there, and then it became a ballgame.”
In the end, it was their finest hour as they would lose to Arizona two days later. But this team put Cleveland State basketball back on the map and made the city proud.
In other local college news that is worth a mention in 2009, the Akron Zips made their first NCAA Basketball Tournament since 1986, and the Akron men’s soccer team made it all the way to the national championship game, losing to Virginia on penalty kicks.