By Adam Schabel
The Cleveland State University men’s basketball team accomplished something that they hadn’t done in nearly a decade by making it to the Horizon League Championship Game for the first time since 2009.
The Vikings got hot towards the end of the season as they went 4-4 over their last eight regular season games.
The team had some momentum going into the tournament.
“We were much improved, and we were able to compete with everybody all the way to the championship game. We finished the season in a very strong fashion,” Head Coach Dennis Felton said. “Once February came around, we were much improved, playing our best basketball and we went into the tournament with that kind of momentum and that kind of belief in ourselves.”
Cleveland State traveled to Detroit, Michigan, where the Horizon League Tournament was being held at Little Caesars Arena.
The No. 9 seed Youngstown State Penguins were the No. 8 seed Vikings’ opponent in the first round. Cleveland State pulled out a close victory in the final seconds as they eliminated the Penguins with a 72-71 win.
“[We took it] one game at a time,” Felton said. “In a championship tournament, you have to focus on winning the first game and then settle in.”
The Vikings and Penguins were no strangers to each other as the two teams played each other a week prior to their first-round matchup. In that game, Cleveland State defeated Youngstown State 99-94 in double overtime in the final game of the regular season for both teams.
Cleveland State had a tough task ahead of them in the quarterfinals as the No. 1 seed Northern Kentucky Norse were awaiting the Vikings. The Norse compiled the best record in the league this season, which granted them the top seed in the tournament and a first round bye.
They upset the best team in the Horizon League with a final score of 89-80 to advance to the semi-finals.
“The big challenge was that Northern Kentucky showed a large gap between us and them in the regular season. They were a very physical team, and that attacked one of our vulnerabilities. We weren’t built to be physical, and that was one of our greatest challenges all year was to play with more physicality,” Felton said.
“That was a big mountain to climb, to find a way to really compete with them,” Felton said. “Our players knew it, so winning that game took us to another level in comparison to how our players felt about themselves.”
Only one team stood in their way from reaching the Horizon League Championship Game. That team was the fifth seeded Oakland University Golden Grizzlies.
Cleveland State and Oakland battled it out in a low-scoring affair, ending with a win for the Vikings. They eliminated the Golden Grizzlies with a 44-43 win to punch their ticket to the championship game.
“Oakland was another team that swept us in the regular season, and they were very explosive offensively,” Felton said. “We went into that game feeling like we could conquer anything once we were able to find a way to beat Northern Kentucky.”
Up next for Cleveland State in the championship game was the second-best team in the Horizon League, the second seeded Wright State University Raiders.
The Vikings hung in there as they trailed by just eight at halftime. The second half was a different story, however, as the Raiders pulled away and defeated Cleveland State 74-57.
The Vikings appeared to run out of gas in the second half on the second night of a back-to-back. Cleveland State’s semifinal matchup against Oakland was the night before their bout with Wright State.
Felton believed his players handled the tournament run the right way and played some of their best basketball in the tournament.
“[The players were] focused on the next game in front of us. We were feeling good about ourselves as a team and how we played with each other and for each other,” Felton said. “Our defense and rebounding had made a big step forward from the standpoint of not only were we doing the right things, but also being in the right place and having good discipline to our schemes.”
“However, we were doing it with more physical toughness and we were a team to be reckoned with,” Felton added. “The guys were enjoying that newfound level but were also very focused on the next opponent in front of us.”
Cleveland State students rallied behind the team throughout their tournament run.
Buses full of students traveled to Detroit to cheer on the Vikings during each of their games. For the championship game, President Berkman said five buses made the trip to the Motor City.
“I was very aware of it, excited by it and thankful. We didn’t talk about it at all with our team because I believe it’s important not to get caught up in external things and just stay focused on the things we can control to try to win the next game. I don’t know how aware [the players] were about the excitement growing in Cleveland,” Felton said.
“I would assume they know a lot about it because in this day of social media, I don’t think much gets past them,” Felton said. “I knew we could look back and enjoy the new interest in what we were doing when it was all over.”
Felton believes making it to the championship game is something the team can build on for the future.
“We are in our infancy at growing a great program. As a basketball team we are in a unique situation because next year, we are starting over again. Half our team will be new guys who will be coming in and learning a lot of what we’ve been teaching this first year,” Felton said.
“We have some important returning players like Tyree [Appleby], like Stefan [Kenic] and Algevon Eichelberger. Those guys have learned a lot in year one, but are so young and have a lot to learn,” Felton said. “They will have to bridge the team from this year to next year.”