There’s always a game Cleveland State has marked on the calendar as the top match-up of the season. And for the second year in a row, that the home game at the Wolstein Center against Wisconsin-Green Bay. Last year, missing their top scorer Bryn Forbes due to an illness, the Vikings struggled against a Phoenix squad that featured Alec Brown and Keifer Sykes.
For the second year in a row, the illness bug has stricken Cleveland State again. This time, it was Marlin Mason, who missed his third straight game with a virus. The Vikings also had starting guard Andre Yates only at 50 percent.
In order to beat a Green Bay team that was picked to finish first in the Horizon League, Cleveland State needed to start out quickly and certainly keep Sykes at bay.
The Vikings held the lead on the Phoenix for the vast majority of the game, and weathered a Green Bay run at the start of the second half to get a huge win at home, 76-62. The win pulls CSU back even at the top of the Horizon League standings with Valparaiso, who survived a scare against Illinois-Chicago.
“I thought our energy level was high from the very beginning,” said head coach Gary Waters. “And we talked about that in the locker room. We said this is our house. We have a chance to be in first place in this league, and what we have to do is control our house. And I think that’s what we did today.”
As has been the case for most of their victories this season, Cleveland State was paced by its top three players, Trey Lewis, Charlie Lee and Anton Grady. This time, however, the memory of being overpowered last year was fresh in their minds, and they were looking for some payback.
“This was a huge game for us,” Lewis said. “I was telling Anton (Grady) right before the game started, ‘You remember what happened last year,’ and that was our mindset coming into this game. They dominated us last year, and we came out with the mindset that we would dominate this year.”
For the first 20 minutes, the Vikings swarmed on defense. The Phoenix coughed up the ball nine times, leading to 14 Cleveland State points. Moreover, Sykes was limited to only two first-half points, being spotted quite effectively by Yates’ replacement in the lineup, Kaza Keane. Also not helping was that Sykes committed his second foul with six minutes left in the half, leaving him to sit on the bench until the closing seconds.
Defense, as it has been all season, played a huge part of the early Viking advantage. Cleveland State rendered Green Bay scoreless for five minutes, which allowed the Vikings to pull out to a 27-11 lead. Even at the end of the first half when Cleveland State only hit two out of 10 field goals, the Phoenix were only able to cut the lead down to 11 at halftime.
In the second half, though Green Bay showed why it was picked to finish at the top of the Horizon League standings, going on a 6-0 run. Lewis then turned around with a three-pointer. Then Waters brought Yates in to take over for Keane, who committed his third foul, and clamped down on defense.
Lewis finished the game with a double-double, notching 25 points and 12 rebounds. Grady fell short of a double-double, but still made his presence known in the paint with 24 points and six boards. Lee played every part of the role of distributor, with seven assists to go along with 12 points.
The win was also in front of one of the largest crowds of the season, with 3,525 people coming to watch the Viking performance. While it doesn’t put them over the Boyd Line (The 1,770 per game average set in 1995-96), the win does give Cleveland State fans some incentive to put the team over that average.
“This was a big crowd game,” Water said of the attendance versus the Phoenix. “And when people come out to see you, you need to give them a good performance. And that gives them the idea that they should come back and watch some more, and I thought we did a great job of that today.”
Mason’s Outlook Looking Better
The virus that has been causing Mason to sit out three games may finally be subsiding. Waters said that Mason underwent a second spinal tap late in the week, and it appears that he is feeling much better. Waters is confident that Mason will return for next week’s games at home against Youngstown State and Wright State.
O’No! A Bump in the Road!
The Cleveland State-Green Bay match-up would have meant much more to the Vikings, had it not been for a trip earlier in the week to Oakland for a return contest with the Golden Grizzlies. The O’rena, as it turns out, has become the toughest place to play in the Horizon League by far. Just ask the Phoenix and Valparaiso.
And despite coming back from being down double digits, Cleveland State couldn’t overcome it, and a Lewis three-pointer that fell just short sealed the game for Oakland, 59-56. As was the case in the 65-61 win at the Wolstein Center, Lewis was constantly harassed by Golden Grizzlies defensive specialist Dante Williams, and was limited to just five points.
Foul trouble also reared its ugly head in the loss, as the Vikings spent much of the first half without Grady and Zollo, who committed two fouls in the opening 75 seconds of the game. In total, Oakland ended up taking advantage by getting to the foul line an astonishing 28 times, compared to just seven for Cleveland State.
While the Golden Grizzlies have enjoyed a free throw advantage for most of their home wins (Green Bay being the exception), it was the Viking scoring droughts that proved to be their ultimate undoing. And in spite of shooting 44 percent from the floor, Cleveland State misfired badly from beyond the arc, shooting just 4-of-14 for a dismal 28 percent.
With the Vikings defeat, Oakland has now defeated the top three teams in the conference, as well as Wright State and Milwaukee. Unless Horizon League bottom-feeders Youngstown State or Illinois-Chicago somehow fluke their way into a win, which is highly unlikely, the February 15th game against Detroit will determine whether the Golden Grizzlies will sport perfect record in the O’rena.