It wasn’t supposed to end that way. A season that started with a shocking 71-58 road win at #7 Vanderbilt, rode a 12-2 start to a 20-4 Horizon League lead, crashed and burned on a Valparaiso Saturday night.
In the semifinals of the Horizon League tournament, the second-seeded Cleveland State Vikings faced the Detroit Titans, who finished tied for third in the league and earned the third seed thanks to a sweep of Butler. UDM came into Saturday’s tilt needing two victories just to get the opportunity to face the Vikings, the recipient of a double-bye. The draw look auspicious for CSU, considering that nemesis Butler and top seeded Valparaiso were on the other half of the draw. The Vikings had already beaten Detroit both times they played in the regular season, including a 77-64 win just a week ago. Gary Waters’s club was also welcoming back Senior leader SF D’Aundray Brown, their second leading scorer and best defensive player.
It all looked so good on paper. The Vikings had floundered down the stretch, but seemed to gotten their acts together with back to back home wins to close out the regular season. With Brown back and four seniors ready to take their last shot at the NCAA Tournament, the Vikings looked like they were ready to roll.
Then the game happened.
A team they dominated twice during the regular season took it right at the Vikings and beat them at their own game. Detroit’s Ray McCallum Jr, a former McDonald’s All-American, was unstoppable, eating the CSU guards for dinner. They tried Tre Harmon on him. They tried Jeremy Montgomery on him. They even gave the defensive-minded Brown a shot with his length. Nobody could slow down McCallum who hit seven of 10 shots from the field and 11 of 13 from the free throw line on his way to 26 points. Not only was McCallum scoring, but he was knifing through the CSU pressure defense with relative ease. The Titans did nothing special outside of their point guard’s brilliance, but it was enough to hold on for a 63-58 win.
The Titans move onto the finals to face Valparaiso who worked over Butler by 19 in the other semifinal. The Vikings now sit, wait, and hope for an NIT bid.
“We beat ourselves today. We felt it had nothing to do with them, it was only us,” said a disgusted Waters after the game. He watched as his team trailed by as many as 12 with just under 10 minutes remaining. Like they have done so many times, the Vikings fought all the way back to tie things at 49 with 3:07 to play on two Brown free throws. They had the ball in their hands with nine seconds left, down by three. Freshman Charles Lee rushed a triple try up without even looking at a teammate to pass to. The shot was blocked by UDM’s LaMarcus Lowe. McCallum’s two free throws iced the game.
“We have no one to blame for this but ourselves,” said Waters.
So this is how it all ends for Brown, Montgomery, Harmon, and Aaron Pogue? Brown was terrific, but the other three Seniors subpar performances down the stretch had Waters going to his Freshman Lee, Marlin Mason, and even little-used Ike Nwamu more than he thought he would. In fact, it was Lee and Nwamu who were on the floor at the end of the game. They all gave their best, but they came up short in the end.
“I feel really bad for the seniors,” said Kamczyc, who added “I have never seen anyone play as hard as D’Aundray. He played his heart out tonight.”
This season seemed to have so much promise, but this group of hard-nosed over-achievers may have just played over their heads during the first two-thirds of the season. Maybe the injury to Brown exposed their shortcomings and by the time they tried to stop the bleeding, it was too late. Waters showed some desperation by moving Lee into the starting lineup at point guard late in the season and moving Montgomery off the ball. He also began giving important minutes to Mason and Nwamu over the last month. Tinkering with the rotation that late in the season is not something that you usually do. But Waters obviously felt that he had to do something.
Regardless, the season came to a screeching halt before it was supposed to. And now Waters and his team has to wait and see if they will play on in either the NIT or CBI tournaments.
“This hurts because we didn’t play the way we can,” said Waters. “That’s what bothers me the most.”