February 22, 2023
Cleveland State is finding its stride at the right time
The Vikings are riding a 9-game win streak into Thursday night's pivotal matchup
If you’re looking for a team poised to bust some brackets next month, check out Cleveland State. Through Wednesday, the Vikings are 26-3 and 16-2 in the Horizon League, going into Thursday night’s showdown at Green Bay (23-4, 16-2) that will likely decide the regular season title. The Vikings have been in the ‘Also Receiving Votes’ category of the national rankings.
“We play a different style,” fifth-year CSU head coach Chris Kielsmeier said. “I don’t think there are too many teams in the country who play like us. Most nights, we play close to 40 minutes of zone. It’s a really aggressive zone. We really want to force the action with it, and we are able to generate a lot of offense off of that. I think it can be a real challenge when you haven’t gone against a zone for months. Some of these teams are in leagues where they don’t even play a zone. We always believe that if we get into a tournament setting, we’re going to be hard to prepare for because we play differently.”
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The Vikings opened the season with a tough loss to then-No. 8 Iowa State, 87-54. Two days later, CSU earned the highlight of its impressive resume, battling DePaul to a 90-83 overtime victory in Chicago. Despite 42 points and 15 rebounds from Aneesah Morrow – one of the best players in the country – CSU outshot DePaul 68 percent to 55 percent and went 9-of-19 from downtown while holding the Blue Demons to 4-of-24 beyond the arc.
A 16-game winning streak ended in a 17-point home loss to Green Bay on January 14 but the Vikings responded with a dominant 103-72 performance at Wright State. They dropped a four-point decision at Northern Kentucky, then rattled off nine-consecutive wins. While Green Bay is holding teams to a Horizon League-low 53 points per game, the Vikings are boasting a 19.7-point scoring margin.
“We know as a program, we need to be consistent with every aspect of the game,” Kielsmeier added. “That starts with our effort, how hard we play, and how smart we play. We’re just focused on what Cleveland State needs to do.”
The Vikings’ balanced offensive attack
About a 20-minute drive to the east of campus is Willowick, Ohio – the hometown of Destiny Leo. The 5’10 junior guard is leading the Horizon League with more than 18 points per game. She also leads the league in three-pointers and free throw percentage. Of course, this success is nothing new as she recorded 18.7 points per game as an All-Horizon League sophomore last season. The Ohio Ms. Basketball runner-up’s family comes to every game.
“There are a lot of things that really motivate me,” Leo said. “Getting better every day motivates me, but sometimes I feel like when that motivation is not there, discipline really comes into line. I think that with our team, a lot of us are pretty disciplined. That gives you the strength to come in and get what needs to be done without being motivated by something.”
The sports management major aspires to play professionally after graduating. Later, she said she would like to pursue a coaching career.
“She’s been really valuable to the program since she walked on campus,” Kielsmeier said of Leo. “She’s a local kid who wanted to play for her hometown school, which is really special and really helps with recruiting. She’s grown as a person. She has become much more confident in herself, more comfortable in herself in aspects off the court. She never needed confidence on the court. She believes in her ability on both ends of the floor. For me, the thing that excites me about coaching her is – she’s never satisfied. She always wants more and expects more from herself. What more would you want as a coach? She has the desire to get it done in life – not on the court – in life, and she really shows that.”
Senior forward Brittni Moore adds 12 points per game, while senior forward Amele Ngwafang adds 10 points and a team-best 7.5 rebounds. Ngwafang played on the Radford team that lost to Maryland in the 2019 NCAA Tournament, and Moore transferred from UT Martin. Freshman Jordana Reisma offers a spark off the bench on defense with 36 blocks on the season.
“Jordana hasn’t acted like a freshman all season,” Kielsmeier said. “She understands the system as an experienced player. Her confidence has grown. She’s been able to talk more as she’s gotten older. Jordana really wants to be a better basketball player. She puts the work in, she listens, and works hard. Those are the types of players who really take off and have a chance to reach their potential.”
Looking ahead to the Horizon League Championships
The Horizon League Tournament will begin at campus sites on March 2, with the semifinals and the final scheduled for March 6 and 7 in Indianapolis.
“As we’ve gone through conference season, every win we have has been really exciting,” Leo added. “We definitely learned how (Green Bay) is going to play us. There are things we are going to make adjustments to, and it’s up to us to put them into play. It would mean everything (to make it to the NCAA Tournament). That’s what we play basketball for – to win championships. That is our goal we set at the beginning of the year, and we just need to finish it off.”
Last year, the team was 23-9 (14-6), lost to IUPUI in the Horizon League final, then to St. Mary’s in the final of the Women’s Basketball Invitational- an event it won in 2021. Coach Kielsmeier mentioned that the WBI produced valuable experience most teams do not have. The program has two NCAA bids, both as No. 15 seeds in 2008 and 2010.
Written by Scott Mammoser
Scott Mammoser has covered major international events for FIBA, the ISU and World Athletics. He has been to six Olympics and traveled to more than 70 countries.
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