As we’ve said before, the Horizon League in 2011 is a minefield. Seemingly on any night, any team can jump up and bite you for an unexpected loss. That is why this past weekend was so important for the Cleveland State Vikings. They returned home after a three-game road trip for two games against teams jockeying for upper tier position in the standings. First was Detroit, followed by Wright State.
The UDM Titans boast one of the best starting fives in the league and have a ton of talent. They landed the league’s first McDonald’s All-American straight out of High School, Ray McCallum Jr, along with a couple of high major transfers that have turned them into a tough out. The Vikings knew how pivotal this game was and turned up the heat defensively.
Playing their usual full court pressure style, CSU forced 19 Detroit turnovers on their way to a 81-69 win. Norris Cole again did it all, scoring 18 points, while dishing out 11 assists. Though it was his four steals that were the key. CSU had to speed the Titans up, because Detroit’s Eli Holman and Nick Minnerath were owning the post. They went right at Center Aaron Pogue and Power Forward Tim Kamczyc and put both in foul trouble. They were limited to 18 and 20 minutes respectively.
Holman and Minnerath combined for 32 points on 13 of 20 shooting while grabbing 21 rebounds.
With Detroit owning the glass (37-25) and the paint, it was up to CSU’s perimeter players to take them home.
Tre Harmon was masterful again, leading all scorers with 22 points, including three triples. Cole chipped in 18 and controlled the tempo in his 38 minutes of play. On a night when Jeremy Montgomery was having a hard time finding his rhythm (no field goals, 3 points), CSU got major contributions from the bench. Charlie Woods and Josh McCoy each played 16 minutes scored eight points a piece.
“Our bench really came through today,” CSU coach Gary Waters said. “They were committed and focused.” That includes bigs Joe Latas and Ludovic Ndaye (17 minutes each) who did their best taking turns against Holman and Minnerath.
By the 12-minute mark, a 12 point CSU lead and become a one point deficit at 47-46. A McCallum free throw gave UDM a 60-59 lead with eight minutes left. That’s when the Vikings offense went to work, drawing fouls seemingly every possession. A 14-4 run was keyed by a complete team effort – Latas had a bucket and a free throw, Pogue hit two free throws, Cole had a layup, McCoy had a deuce, and Kamczyc had five key points, including a three with 3:30 left to put the Vikings up 74-61.
CSU’s big win carried over to Saturday when they welcomed red-hot Wright State, who last week had beaten Butler. Both teams entered 6-2 in league played, tied for second, one game behind Valparaiso. If the Vikings want to stay near the top, this was a game that could not lose.
As with the majority of their games in the Waters era, the Vikings came out focused, particularly on the defensive end, and jumped out to a 9-2 start. They never looked back, throttling Wright State 65-46 in a virtuoso defensive performance.
The Raiders never had a chance thanks to CSU’s stifling defense. On the day, Wright State made just 11 field goals on 26%. They were a frigid 3-20 from deep.
“We were focused on the defensive end,” Waters said in the understatement of the year.
Once again, the Vikings sped the opponent up, and it turned out to be the difference. “They made all the tough plays tonight,” Wright State coach Billy Donlon said. “The pace they play, we weren’t ready for.”
After his off night, Montgomery came back strong leading the Vikes with 17 points. Cole was his usual all-around self, grabbing a season-high 10 rebounds from the PG position and scoring 14. Pogue came up big as well, hitting all six of his shots in the post for 15 points. He also snagged eight boards.
Cleveland State is in the midst of a school-record 14 game home court winning streak. “This is our house and our goal here is to bring the pain,” said Pogue. “We needed to get our sense of urgency back.”
That is exactly what they did.
After the dust settled from the weekend, Cleveland State sits at 7-2 in the Horizon League and 18-3 overall. With Valpo’s stunning two-point home loss to Green Bay on Saturday, CSU is now tied for first place, with the Crusaders coming to Cleveland in two weeks. The Vikings now head to Chicago for a two game trip against bottom-feeders UIC (0-8) and Loyola (3-6).
photo via John Kuntz/Plain Dealer