Reaching for the Horizon

February 3, 2011

February 3rd, 2011

CLEVELAND -- In the Horizon League, every game is an NCAA tournament game.

That's especially true of programs like Cleveland State, or any mid-major school at the top of its conference that needs to stay there. At least, it does if it hopes to guarantee a trip to big-time postseason play.

Those reasons and more explain why the Vikings' 76-65 home win over Valparaiso on Thursday was so important.


Not only did the victory improve the Vikings to 21-3 overall, but it moved them to 10-2 in the league. It also dropped the Crusaders to 8-3 (and 16-7 overall) with two weeks remaining in the regular season. And it should be noted that the regular-season champion hosts the Horizon tournament -- and the Horizon champ receives an automatic bid to the NCAAs.

So with six straight wins and an inside track on the league title, all is clearly great at Cleveland State.

Right, coach Gary Waters?

"We did not play a very good game in my estimation," Waters said. "We played hard and we played tough, but we didn't execute the way we were supposed to execute."

Well, OK then. So maybe everything isn't perfect in the world of Vikings basketball. But anyone who watched the Vikings fight off repeated Valpo runs has to be feeling confident.

And anyone who watched standout guard Norris Cole control the game in every way imaginable has to believe that yeah, even when the Vikings aren't great, they're still pretty good.

With his flat-top haircut and willingness to get his teammates involved, the 6-foot-2 Cole is a throwback in the truest sense. And all he did on this night was compile 25 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists -- playing a full-speed-ahead brand of basketball and frequently making something really cool out of nothing.

"That's my job as a leader of the team and as a point guard, to control the tempo," Cole said. "You gotta out-run them and get them out of their spots, and that's what we tried to do."

Of course, Waters was a little less satisfied. Not only was he frustrated with his team's offensive efficiency, but he used words like "breakdowns" and "trouble" when describing the evening. That's likely because the coach knows these mid-major waters -- and more precisely, this league -- all too well.

"The one I'm concerned with is Valpo," Waters said. "I don't see them getting another loss. We have one blemish and they're right back in it."

While the coach speaks the truth, the Vikings at least displayed heart, balance and depth on a night when they needed all three.

For instance, guard Jeremy Montgomery finished with a team-high 26 points, taking and making the best of shots to go 7-for-10 from the floor.

Or how about guard Trey Harmon, who averages 13.8 points per game, but missed all five of his field-goal attempts Thursday to finish with just three? But instead of sulking, Harmon contributed in other ways -- namely, by pulling down a career-high 12 rebounds.

Also, big man Charlie Woods came off the bench to block a whopping five shots.

Even Waters conceded that "it was a true team effort."

The Vikings led just 31-30 at halftime and 63-60 late in the game. But they never trailed and only allowed Valpo to tie it twice.

Howard Little led the Crusaders with 17 points, and Ryan Broekhoff finished with 15. But leading scorer Brandon Wood was held to just six on 2-for-7 shooting.

The Vikings return home Saturday at noon to face Butler, last year's national runner-up. This year, the Bulldogs are struggling, with the latest evidence coming in Thursday's 62-60 upset loss at Youngstown State.