When we last left our Cleveland State Vikings, they were losers of five straight. This reeling bunch, which once stared down the Horizon League title and then fell completely off the table, had two games left to make things somewhat right. On Thursday night, they faced a pseudo-double bye chance elimination game with Detroit (sporting the same 10-6 conference mark as CSU). The Titans came to Cleveland on a five-game winning streak. Still without their Senior leader and defensive stopper D’Aundray Brown, it was put up or shut up time for the Vikes.
Like they have so many times in the Gary Waters era, Cleveland State rose to the occasion and leaned on their defense in the second half, erasing a six point halftime deficit on its way to a 77-64 win over the talented Titans. CSU held Detroit to just five second half field goals (on 23 shots) and 29% shooting for the game. The duo of Anton Grady and Aaron Pogue did a great job holding UDM Center Eli Holman to just six points on 3-10 shooting, which was key during the second half surge. Offensively Senior Tre Harmon’s 16 led four Vikings in double figures.
The Freshman duo of Marlin Mason and Charles Lee came up huge in a time when their team needed it the most. Mason, who had played more than 18 minutes just once and never scored more than six points in a game, exploded for 15 points in 32 minutes. “That’s the best I’ve ever played, defensively and offensively,” he said. Lee came off the bench to add 12 points and five assists, and was subsequently moved into the starting lineup for the next game. They really were the difference makers in this one.
Throw in eight points in 12 solid minutes from little-used Ike Nwamu, and Waters bench outscored Detroit’s 25-10.
“Their will, their bench, was a huge factor down the stretch,” Detroit coach Ray McCallum said. “Lee and Mason did a nice job. They really turned it up tonight.”
Now with the five-game losing streak behind them, Waters and his team could exhale briefly. Even though they had to wait until Saturday to play their next game, good news came Friday night. Valparaiso, the team that had already clinched the Horizon League title, knocked off Butler 71-59 while essentially playing for nothing. The Valpo W gave Cleveland State the power to control their own destiny for the #2 seed and the double bye in this week’s Horizon League tournament, hosted by Valpo. The Vikes woke up Saturday knowing a win over Wright State puts them two wins from the NCAA Tournament.
Just as they did two days before against Detroit, Cleveland State used a stellar second half defensive performance to pull away from Wright State and win in blowout fashion, 77-55 on a day Seniors Harmon, Jeremy Montgomery, Pogue, and the injured D’Aundray Brown were honored.
The Vikings led by just three at the half, but the offense caught fire, hitting 74% of their shots and scoring 47 points. Harmon again was the man, leading all scorers with 20. Montgomery added 17 and the Freshman Grady had 12 points and eight boards in 24 minutes. Another true team effort clinched that #2 seed and the all-important double bye into the Horizon League semifinals.
“It don’t matter who we are playing,” Montgomery said. “We have our swagger back.”
The two wins to close out the season turned out to be monster. Had the Vikes lost one of those two, they would have been in the pack of 11-7 teams and subjected to a whole host of tie-breakers that wouldn’t have ended well. But, they didn’t and thanks to those tie-breakers, they are looking at a very favorable draw and they only have to play two games instead of four.
Valpo (14-4) and CSU (12-6) are the top two seeds and receive double-byes. Detroit, Milwaukee, and Butler all 11-7 were seeded accordingly based upon tie breakers. The way things shook out, Butler – CSU’s nemesis, and Milwaukee are on Valpo’s half of the draw, while Detroit, who the Vikings swept, is the best of the lot on their side. Trust me when I tell you this is a huge break for Cleveland State.
Best of all for the Vikings; they will have Brown back for Saturday’s Semifinal game. They extra rest certainly helps. “Percentagewise, I think I’m about 80 percent, 85 percent,” he said after Thursday night’s win against Detroit. Waters ended up holding him out Saturday as well. “He could not move laterally like he wanted,” he said. “So we held him back for another week.”
The tournament commences with Tuesday night’s first round on campus sites.
First Round – Tuesday, Feb. 28 (campus sites)
Game 1: (10) Loyola at (3) Detroit, 7 p.m. ET
Game 2: (7) Green Bay at (6) Youngstown State, 7:05 p.m. ET
Game 3: (9) UIC at (4) Milwaukee, 8 p.m. ET
Game 4: (8) Wright State at (5) Butler, 7 p.m. ET
Second Round – Friday, March 2 (Valparaiso)
Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 6 p.m. ET (Horizon League Network | ESPN3)
Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 8:30 p.m. ET (Horizon League Network | ESPN3)
Semifinals – Saturday, March 3 (Valparaiso)
Game 7: Game 5 winner vs. (2) Cleveland State, 6 p.m. ET (ESPNU – tape delayed at 10:30 p.m. ET; live on ESPN3)
Game 8: Game 6 winner at (1) Valparaiso, 8:30 p.m. ET (ESPNU)
Championship – Tuesday, March 6 (highest remaining seed)
Game 9: Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner
(info courtesy of HorizonLeague.org)
(photo via John Kuntz/PD)