The Cleveland State men’s basketball team was riding high, sitting atop the Horizon League in control of their own destiny to host the conference tournament just two short weeks ago. Fast forward to last night, and not only has the league lead been taken away from them completely, but all of a sudden the all important double-bye in the tournament is on its way to disappearing.
Coming off of a pair of ill-timed home losses to league leading Valparaiso and Butler last week, the Vikings travelled to Wisconsin for the tough battle against Milwaukee. The Panthers, a team that CSU has caught, jumped, and pounded at the Wolstein Center 83-57 on January 22nd, took it to the Vikings and handed them their third straight loss last night 86-84. It wasn’t just that they lost, it was how the game ended.
The Vikings played their worst defensive game of the season, allowing 50 points to the Panthers in the first half and headed into the locker room trailing by nine. They trailed by as many as 16 in the second half before storming all the way back to tie the game on a Jeremy Montgomery layup with 40 seconds left. Milwaukee decided to hold for the last shot. Kaylon Williams missed a jumper, got his own rebound, missed again, and CSU tipped the ball out of bounds with one second left.
After a Milwaukee timeout, Tony Meier caught the inbounds pass and launched a desperation heave. Vikings Freshman Marlin Mason, standing in front of Meier, was whistled for a phantom foul call with just one second left on the clock.
“His hands were right like this,” Waters said, holding his arms straight up. “He went up like this and his hands were straight in the air. That was not a foul.”
Meier made the first two free throws and missed the third. An Anton Grady heave was way short.
The shame of it all is that the CSU offense finally woke up from its slump, shooting 60% from the field and scoring 84 points. Vikings fans know, if they shoot that way, they almost never lose. Notice I said “almost.” Tre Harmon led all scorers with 27 points, Montgomery added 15, and freshman PG Charles Lee had 14 off the bench. But the defense failed them, giving up 13 three pointers to Milwaukee, and with the help of the refs, allowed the Panthers to get to the line a whopping 40 times, where they made 33 free throws. This majorly stuck in Waters’s craw after the game, especially the final call on Mason.
“When you have two teams that play that hard, all you have to do is go to overtime and see who pulls it out. Our kids had to play over too much stuff today.”
You had to feel for Mason, who had his redshirt lifted earlier in the season when Sebastian Douglas tore his ACL and is playing major minutes with D’Aundrey Brown out with a groin injury. “This kid that they called that foul on, he’s sitting in there crying,” Waters said. “He’s a freshman. He’s crying. This is what he feels. Then we try to console him and make him feel better about himself.”
The entire team needs some consoling right about now. They have lost three straight at the worst possible time and with Butler’s three-game winning streak going on simultaneously, the Vikings sit just a half game ahead of the Bulldogs in the race for the all important second place finish, which gives the team a double bye into the Horizon League conference tournament semi-finals. Butler has games remaining with 3-12 UIC and Valparaiso. Valpo, for all intents are purposes, has the regular season crown locked up at 12-4, with CSU sitting at 10-5 with three games left. The Vikes still have Green Bay on the road next Tuesday, then finish with tough home games against Detroit and Wright State.