I am proud to say I was one of the 4,400 plus that was in attendance last night at the Wolstein Center to watch the best and most well coached team our city has to offer. Yes folks, I am talking about your Cleveland State Vikings who excited the crowd all night during their 76-65 win over Valparaiso, the team that entered only a half game behind them for first place in the Horizon League.
It was the first of a two game homestand that would make or break the chances for a regular season title and hosting the Conference Tournament in early March.
From the first two minutes of the game, Junior SG Jeremy Montgomery was out to prove this was his night. His back to back threes started the Vikings off on the right foot and they went from there. They would never relinquish a lead and were up double digits several times throughout the game, but a tough Valpo squad seemed to never go away. Every time the Vikings stretched a lead to ten, the Crusaders would hit them with a 6-0 or an 8-0 run.
Cleveland State lead 29-18, until Valpo, led by the hot shooting of Ryan Broekoff, finished the half on a 12-2 run. The Vikings held a halftime lead, but only by the slimmest of margins (31-30).
CSU Head Coach Gary Waters was looking for more intensity from his club during the biggest game of the season, and they came out with a renewed focus in the second half. Montgomery and Norris Cole would not let their team lose. Once again, the guards had to do it for Cleveland State because…surprise, surprise… Aaron Pogue was in foul trouble. He picked up his fourth foul, a very cheap one, with just under 13 minutes left, and never returned to the game.
With Cole driving to the hole so effectively, the shots were there for Montgomery on the perimeter, and he took full advantage. The lefty knocked down four of his six three-point attempts, and used the shot fake to drive past his defenders to get to the basket. He went to the line a whopping 14 times – a big number for a shooting guard – but made only eight. All of this combined to give Montgomery a game-high 26 points.
Not to be outdone, Cole played a magnificent game from the point, particularly in the second half, where he really seized control of the game. He finished with 25 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists, while sinking all eight of his free throws.
“Cole and Montgomery were sensational. Their speed was a tremendous difference in this basketball game,” said Valpo coach Homer Drew.
Their big games were needed, particularly with Tre Harmon and Pogue essentially non-existent on offense (nine points combined). Give Harmon the nod though. In 38 minutes he grabbed a career high 12 rebounds. Not bad for a 6’1 guard.
The requisite unsung Vikings hero of the night was Charlie Woods, who provided great energy off the bench, spelling the foul-ridden Pogue. In 19 minutes, Woods was everywhere on both ends making hustle plays. He grabbed six rebounds and blocked five shots. His only bucket was a tip-in jam off of a Cole miss that brought the crowd to its feet.
“I just went in and do what I do,” said Woods, the Sophomore forward.
The defense deserves plaudits as well. While they only forced a season-low five turnovers, they swarmed the Crusader shooters all night and held them to 37% from the field (they came in averaging 48%), including 28% from three.
Valparaiso kept it close into the final two minutes with the Vikings struggling from the line (25-40), but they hit just enough free throws in the end to pull out the W to put themselves a game and a half ahead of the Crusaders for first place in the Horizon League.
Waters was far from satisfied after the game.
“If we play Saturday like we did tonight, we’ll be in trouble,” he said.
Saturday is a home date with Butler, who despite struggling of late, is still dangerous. The Bulldogs are CSU’s arch-nemesis, and nothing would make them happier than to get revenge on their 23-point blowout loss a month ago in Indianapolis.
CSU is encouraging fans to wear Black for a “Blackout” for Saturday’s nationally televised game on ESPN. You can bet I will be there, sporting my latest purchase from last night’s game – the “Beat Butler” shirt you see above.
If there was ever a time to get to a game, its this Saturday. It was a great crowd last night, but it could always be better. This is the best thing we’ve got in Cleveland right now people. Come on out and support your Vikings!