Welcome to Championship Mode.
Friday was one of those games in the past that made Cleveland State fans fill with a heaping helping of dread the last few years. That was mostly because of the fact that the Vikings have faltered multiple times in a big game with a nationally-televised audience, this time on ESPN2.
Add to that the fact that Wisconsin-Green Bay has been invincible at home this season at 12-0 and hadn’t lost in the Resch Center since February 8, 2014. Moreover, the Phoenix, who were drop-kicked by the Vikings in Cleveland, were out for revenge. Finally, CSU hadn’t won in Green Bay since 2010, and there were plenty of good Viking squads that have tried to get a victory there and come up short.
Cleveland State knew all of this going in. And still won in overtime, 66-61.
It took everything the Vikings could dish out: Anton Grady putting up another double-double, Trey Lewis turning it on in overtime…
…and a completely bonkers 31-foot shot by Charlie Lee as the shot clock wound down that made SportCenter’s Top 10 Plays.
You know. This one.
It’s the type of game that gets everyone paying attention, even as the Cavs were on the air at the same time pasting the Wizards. Actually, it seems like a pretty nice good-luck charm to have CSU and the Cavaliers playing on the same day. Both teams have won on the six days when that has happened this season.
And the game came after one of the rare occasions when a game had to be canceled. Earlier this week, the Vikings were supposed to head to Western Carolina to play the Catamounts. But the horrendous weather resulted in CSU’s travel plans getting cut off, as no plane or bus could get through the wintry mess.
So, instead of head coach Gary Waters trying to figure out how to rotate his players for an oddball non-conference game so that they wouldn’t be worn out for the critical match-up in Green Bay, he caught a break. More importantly, so did his team.
And it was a good thing, too. Out of the 45 minutes played on Friday night, Lee played all 45, Lewis played 44 and Grady played 43. Add to that Marlin Mason putting in 36 minutes and Kaza Keane, who had the distinction of guarding Phoenix dynamo Keifer Sykes, notched 35 minutes.
The win over Green Bay also provided everyone with yet another example of how Grady has become one of the best players in the Horizon League, finishing with 20 points and 11 rebounds, marking the seventh time he has done that in league play. Yes, in 14 conference games, Grady has a double-double in half of them.
Nothing about the victory was easy for Cleveland State. The Vikings had to contend with the Phoenix defense which, impressively enough, has been better than CSU’s this season, only allowing 60.6 points per game, compare to Cleveland State’s 61.6. Because of that, Green Bay was able to do something no other team has been able to do to the Vikings all season: Cause turnovers.
The first half turned out to be one of Cleveland State’s worst of the year when it came to handling the ball, coughing it up 10 times. Needless to say, Waters, who has been on record multiple times with his loathing of turnovers, had to have been beside himself.
It also looked like the Phoenix finally had turned the Vikings away late in the second half, when Sykes and Greg Mays nailed back-to-back three-pointers to give Green Bay its largest lead of the game at 50-44 with five minutes left in the game. Cleveland State, who was in the midst of a five-minute scoring drought, looked as if it was over.
Then came a healthy dose of Grady and Lewis, who scored eight points in tandem, and that insane Lee three-pointer with 1:18 left to give Cleveland State the lead. In the extra frame, the Vikings turned on the defense, holding the Phoenix to a pair of field goal, a Mays dunk and a Sykes lay-up when the win was already sealed.
Cleveland State’s huge victory over Green Bay capped off a good week, which started on Sunday with another conference win at the Wolstein Center. This time, it was against an Illinois-Chicago team that had previously knocked off Detroit, who beat the Vikings last Friday, and injury-riddled Wright State.
With a little momentum, the Flames, featuring a completely different lineup than the one that lost to Cleveland State in January, didn’t make it easy on the Vikings. In fact, with a 34-30 lead at halftime, UIC wanted to prove it was no longer one of the doormats of the Horizon League.
Cleveland State was having none of that, though, clamping down on defense while Lewis and Mason went to work. While Grady missed another double-double by a point, he still grabbed 13 boards. Lewis once again led all players with 18 points, while Mason chipped in 11, including a monstrous alley-oop dunk off a pass from Lee.
With the wins, the Vikings remain in control of their own destiny in the Horizon League with a chance to finish at the top of the conference and, as a result, host the Horizon League Tournament. But they will have to stay in Championship Mode for two more games.
First, there is the tail-end of the notorious Wisconsin Trip on Sunday, when Cleveland State travels to Milwaukee to play the Panthers, who has been very good at home as of late and game Valparaiso all it could handle before eventually falling.
Should the Vikings win, that would set up a potential winner-take-all contest in Cleveland against the Crusaders next Friday in a 10:00pm tilt on ESPNU. Prior to that, Viketoberfest, a craft beer event that is probably one of the more inventive promotions at the Wolstein Center this season.