The Cleveland State Vikings and Detroit Titans squared off on Thursday evening at the Wolstein Center in a matchup with major ramifications for seeding in the Horizon League Tournament. Both the Vikings and the Titans headed into Thursday’s matchup riding drastically different five-game streaks. Picked by many preseason analysts to win the Horizon League, the Titans have recently begun to live up to their lofty preseason expectations and came to Cleveland with a five-game winning streak. In contrast, the Vikings limped into Thursday’s game looking to shake a five-game losing streak that has been the result of a groin injury to talented senior D’Aundray Brown and the Vikings’ inability to adjust without their best defender in the starting lineup.
Many of the Vikings’ recent losses have come from their inability to score points in the first half. After the Vikings fell behind by a score of 14-4 with slightly more than 13 minutes left in the first half, the Wolstein Center crowd became somewhat nervous as they understandably began to worry that the Vikings were in the process of yet again falling behind by a sizable deficit that could not be overcome in the second half. Sensing the urgency of the situation, the Vikings rallied to narrow the Titans’ lead to three points with slightly less than six minutes left in the first half. The Titans fought back and expanded their lead to nine points towards the end of the first half. Unlike in previous games, though, the Vikings refused to give in. Following a Vikings timeout with approximately one minute remaining, freshman Ike Nwamu drained a 3-pointer that cut the Titans’ lead to six points and brought the Wolstein Center crowd to their feet despite the fact that the Titans headed into the locker room with a 38-32 lead.
In the second half, the Vikings played the style of basketball that propelled them to the top of the Horizon League standings earlier in the season and wore out the Titans. The Vikings’ relentless pressure defense and hustle limited the Titans to 21.7% shooting in the second half. Surprisingly, the Titans did not exploit the fact that the Vikings’ key big men—freshman Anton Grady and senior Aaron Pogue—were in foul trouble during the second half. Eli Holman, the Titans’ talented senior center who possesses NBA-level talent, only finished with six points. On offense, the Vikings shed their recent pattern of relying on jump shots and instead patiently worked the ball around and frequently wound up with easy baskets near the basket.
After initially retaking a one-point lead with 11 minutes left on another Nwamu 3-pointer, the Vikings briefly lost the lead before retaking it for good with 7:22 left in the game. The Vikings proceeded to steadily extend their lead and ultimately won the game by a score of 77-64. With their win, the Vikings snapped the five-game losing streak that had threatened to sink the team’s chances of postseason success.
As previously mentioned, the loss of Brown has been an immense blow for the Vikings and the Vikings have struggled to replace his defense and rebounding. Tonight, the young core who will lead the Vikings next season and beyond—Grady, Charlie Lee, Marlin Mason, and Nwamu—delivered down the stretch and played some of their best basketball of the season. In fact, some of the Vikings’ best play of the game occurred when the Vikings had three freshmen on the floor. Lee’s final stat line of 12 points and 5 assists does not reflect the major impact that he had on this game, as he ran the Vikings’ offense for much of the game and did not turn the ball over while dealing with the Titans’ full-court pressure. In his second career start, Mason—who was initially slated to redshirt this season and who was pressed into action only because of an injury to Sebastian Douglas—nearly ripped off a double-double, scoring 15 points and pulling down 9 boards. Nwamu’s 8 points, two of which came on 3-pointers, all came at key moments in the game. Although Grady was saddled with foul trouble for much of the game, many of his 8 rebounds were pulled down while the Vikings were battling back into the game.
The Titans’ Chase Simon led all scorers with 17 points. Trevon Harmon led the Vikings with 16 points. Every Vikings player who played in Thursday’s game scored, providing the Vikings with a balanced attack that had been missing in recent games.
With a win on Saturday against the Wright State Raiders, the Vikings can finish no lower than third in the Horizon League standings. If the Butler Bulldogs lose to the Valparaiso Crusaders on Friday evening, the Vikings can clinch the second seed in the Horizon League Tournament with a win on Saturday. Vikings fans should be prepared for their fair share of scoreboard watching and nailbiting as the final few games of yet another hotly contested Horizon League campaign play out and last-minute jockeying for tournament seeding ensues!