The Cleveland State Vikings entered Thursday night’s tilt against the Northern Kentucky Norse with an 8-21 record. It’s been a down year not just in terms of wins and losses but also for attendance and, it seems, general fan interest. The refrain of the season is that this is no surprise given the loss of last year’s top four leading scorers — Trey Lewis, Anton Grady, Charlie Lee, and Marlin Mason — to transfer and graduation. But despite the struggles and the losses, the Vikings have not packed it in.
The Vikes claimed their ninth win of the season Thursday, beating Northern Kentucky, 63-58, at the Wolstein Center. A strong defensive showing helped Cleveland State build a 31-24 halftime lead. The Norse took the lead back, opening the second half with a 13-3 run, but CSU weathered the storm, ended a three-game losing streak, and came away with their first home victory since January 18.
“I told them we had three keys to this game,” Vikings head coach Gary Waters said of his pregame address. “We had to take care of the basketball, we had to limit our fouls and we had to hold them under 60 points. And we did all three.”
The Vikings finished the job down the stretch. They had possession and a 58-57 lead with a 1:06 to go. Andre Yates let a three fly with the shot clock winding down, but it rimmed out toward the right corner. Junior forward Aaron Scales tracked down the rebound and kicked it back outside, sucking valuable time off the clock in the process. Yates capitalized on the second chance by converting a swooping lefty layup to put CSU up, 60-57, with 41 seconds to play.
“I thought Aaron’s rebound was the play of the game,” said Waters.
For the first time in over a month, a home win
Northern Kentucky looked for a quick two on the other end, going inside to freshman big man Drew McDonald. McDonald, who finished with 20 points and 12 rebounds, drew a shooting foul against Vinny Zollo. McDonald made the first free throw but missed the second, and Zollo grabbed the rebound. Zollo was fouled and went to the line with a chance to turn a lead of two points into four. He did just that: Cleveland State 62, Northern Kentucky 58 with 16 seconds remaining.
Northern Kentucky tried to set up a quick triple out of a timeout, but the Vikings did well to put bodies all over the three-point arc. Tyler White’s three was off target and Terrell Hales grabbed the rebound. Kenny Carpenter was fouled in the backcourt and split a pair of free throws with a second left on the clock. The small but hearty Wolstein Center crowd rose to its feet and gave the Vikings a standing ovation as time expired. For the first time in over a month, a home win.
While this season has surely been a disappointing one, junior guard Andre Yates says the team is focusing on improving and turning good habits into second nature. The bulk of this team will be back next season. This is no one-and-done deal.
“It’s a testament to us trying to change our mentality and look at this season as something that we can build on,” Yates said of the win. “Our faith hasn’t wavered whatsoever. We play for a coach who challenges us to be better every day.”
The Vikings went into the game without junior forward Demonte Flannigan, the team’s second-leading scorer (11.3 ppg) and only real post threat. He suffered a concussion in practice and was held out as a precaution. Without him in the lineup, head coach Gary Waters knew his team would be short on scoring. He called upon senior forward Vinny Zollo, freshman guard Rob Edwards, and sophomore guard Kenny Carpenter to pick up the slack.
“In order for us to win this game, we needed a couple of guys to come outside themselves,” Waters said, using his pet phrase for exceeding expectations. “I told Vinny his goal was to [score] double what he averages. I told Rob he had to score more points for us. And I told Kenny he had to double what he averages. Everybody had to give a little bit more.”
All three were up to the challenge, particularly Edwards and Carpenter. Edwards led the Vikings with 19 points, hitting 3-of-6 threes and all six of his free throws. He scored 12 points in the second half and added 5 rebounds for the game. Carpenter started hot, scoring 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the first half. He didn’t see much time in the second half, however, as Waters felt his defense was wanting. When asked why Carpenter didn’t play more in the second half, Waters asked rhetorically, “Did you see all them shots go in on him out there?”
Zollo scored eight points, as did freshman forward Jibri Blount, while junior guard Andre Yates scored nine, including the crucial layup in the final minute. Aaron Scales provided vital rebounding and physicality inside. Sophomore wing Terrell Hales played his typically sound defense. Walk-on freshman point guard Nelson Maxwell played 17 solid minutes. Even redshirt freshman Jonothan Janssen, a 6-foot-9 string bean from Australia, saw playing time. Waters called the win “a total team effort.”
Cleveland State’s last game of the regular season — senior day — is this Saturday at Quicken Loans Arena. They will square off against the Wright State Raiders, who own a 18-12 record overall, including 12-5 in Horizon League play. The Raiders have enjoyed a nice bounce-back season, as they finished just 11-20 last year.
“They’re playing good team basketball,” Waters said of Wright State. “They got inside, they got outside, and they play good together.
“Our job is to go out each possession and just play better and better.”