CLEVELAND — With first place in the Horizon League and a seven-game win streak at stake, Saturday’s visit from Wisconsin-Green Bay marked Cleveland State’s biggest game to date.
And its biggest disaster.
A desperate Cleveland State push in the final 10 minutes ended up being too little, too late as a dominant Green Bay team was its usual patient and efficient self, winning 68-54 without scoring a single fast-break point. It was 15-2 early, a 20-point game twice in the first half, and though the Vikings cut it to 13 at halftime the lead was back to 20 just over three minutes into the second half.
The Vikings cut it to nine, at 57-48, with a little over four minutes left as part of a 17-3 run but would get no closer. With the win, Green Bay essentially clinched the Horizon regular-season title and March home games that come with it.
"This hurts, No. 1, because we had an opportunity to get to the top of this league," Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said. "We also had a chance with some people in our building…and we didn’t sell ourselves. We weren’t at our best in any phase."
The Vikings played without leading scorer Bryn Forbes, who had a stomach virus and was still hospitalized Saturday afternoon. Forbes, the Horizon League Newcomer of the Year last season, ranks among the Horizon’s best in scoring (16.1 per game) and 3-point shooting (42.6 percent).
Forbes had three games with at least 20 points during the win streak. Cleveland State didn’t get to 20 points in the first half Saturday.
"Without Bryn, at the last minute, that throws you for a loop," Waters said. "We didn’t play well. (Not having Forbes), that puts you in disarray.
"Everything went wrong. That game was out of character for us. It was a major disappointment today."
Margins for error and windows of opportunity can be small at the mid-major level. Green Bay kept its momentum rolling, and for as well Cleveland State has played over the last four weeks, it never found any traction Saturday. Cleveland State shot 8-of-28 in the first half and 21-of-68 for the game against Green Bay’s zone.
It was every bit as ugly as that sounds.
"It started compounding," Waters said. "It got away from us."
In the first minute of the second half, Cleveland State’s Anton Grady saw teammate Jon Harris streaking to the basket and lobbed a pass over the defense and towards the rim for Harris. He missed the dunk.
The thud was both literal and figurative.
"Our plans haven’t changed," Waters said. "Our goal is to finish out strong, win the rest…and win a championship, even if we have to win it on somebody else’s court.
"When we play that team again, we’ll be a different team."
Each of Green Bay’s three upperclass starters average in double figures, and all three got there on Saturday.
Green Bay center Alec Brown, a 7-1 senior, had 18 points and 9 rebounds. Point guard Keifer Sykes also had 18, and Greg Mays had 15.
Cleveland State’s Trey Lewis led everybody with 20 points but needed 19 shots to get there. He was the only Viking in double figures.
"We’ve been in this position before," Lewis said. "When we shoot poorly against a zone, we can’t win basketball games. Their length in the zone really gave us trouble."
Green Bay (21-5, 11-2) has won 16 of 18 and now holds a two-game lead plus the tiebreaker over Cleveland State with three to play. The league champion will host in the Horizon League tournament as long as it’s alive and receive an automatic NIT bid if it doesn’t go to the NCAA tournament.
So, Cleveland State lost a lot on Saturday. The Vikings are still 18-10 and 9-4 in the league and with two home games left can play their way into the No. 2 seed and a bye to the semifinals of the conference tournament, but their road to really big games will include having to win on the road.
"We’re disappointed losing this game because we had the opportunity for a championship," Lewis said. "We’re putting this behind us. We’re trying to win a championship in the tournament."
Said Waters: "It doesn’t matter to us whose house (the tournament) is at. We have to put this behind us. I had to tell our guys to put (the regular-season title and today’s game) behind us. We’re trying to win a championship."