As 3,513 Cleveland State basketball fans filed into the Wolstein Center on an overcast, unseasonably moderate 40 degree afternoon for the Vikings two o'clock New Years Eve day Horizon League game against Youngstown State, I recalled a conversation which I had earlier in the day with a friend of mine.
He mentioned that today's game would be a test for Cleveland State and I could not have agreed with him more.
For years, Youngstown State has been an afterthought with regards to basketball and looked upon by fans of their opposition as not much more than that of an exhibition game. YSU Head Coach Jerry Slocum, who is in his seventh season at the easternmost member of the Horizon League, has had the trust of the athletic department's administrator's throughout the past three seasons of fans calling for his dismissal. The past three seasons have been a collective nightmare for fans of Penguin basketball while they have watched their team go a collective 28-62 overall and 11-44 in Horizon League play. This season (albeit young) is proving to be a reward for the exercising of patience, which is virtually non-existent in the society to which we find ourselves currently residing.
Youngstown State enters today's contest with a 6-6 overall record and 1-1 in Horizon League play. Both their games have been on the road. The December 1st, 64-61 win at Detroit Mercy was thought to have been an aberration on my part. I was wrong! Two nights later they traveled to Dayton Ohio to play Wright State (which by the contention of any Horizon League coach, always fields a quality team) and suffered a one point 63-62 loss on a Raiders free throw with 1.4 seconds left in the game. (Ironically, CSU has played both of their Horizon League games against the same two opponents, both on the road) Many choose to look at the loss as to what it is in it's simplest form, a loss. I recognize that one point road loss to a quality opponent as a sign of things to come for Coach Slocum's Penguins. One of the most difficult aspects of a coach's job is to get your players to believe in what you are asking them to do, which in the case of the Youngstown State University men's basketball program is changing the culture inside it, and the perception of those outside it.
There is common ground held between both Jerry Slocum and Gary Waters. Both were asked when hired by their respective universities, to change the culture of the program and re-invigorate the fan base. Although Coach Waters has enjoyed much more success than his counterpart to this point, the improvements visible in the 2011/2012 version of the Penguins basketball program can not be under-stated. I am not a card carrying member of the Jerry Slocum fan club, but I have always been one to recognize the opportunity to lend credit when it is deserved, much as I have been with bestowing accolades to Coach Gary Waters and the under-rated job he has done with establishing Cleveland State as being a perennial favorite to win the Horizon League over the past three seasons.
To those who do not follow Horizon League basketball, the names of the participants in today's game are an afterthought of sorts and I am understanding to a degree. The 800 Game Project has afforded all who follow the sub Red-Line consortium an opportunity to bring about change, and I feel quite honored to offer up my humble dissertation on the reasons why today's game should warrant a 180 degree assessment when passing judgment upon the oft used doormat, formerly known as Penguin basketball.
Cleveland State takes the floor with a 12-2 overall record and a 2-0 mark in Horizon League play. Both of the losses which the Vikings have incurred have come away from the friendly confines of the Wolstein Center. The first of those two was a 10 point loss to Hofstra in the Tickets City Legends Classic in Kingston RI, and the other being a 15 point loss to Big East member South Florida on December 19th in Tampa. Outside of those two games, the Vikings have a record that would make Clearasil blush.
Moments before the tip, I had the opportunity to see the face of Coach Waters, and what I saw from my seat five rows behind the CSU bench was one of concern. I am cognizant that each and every coach has an edge to him, but I have seen quite a few pre-game faces from Coach Waters and this one differed from the calm and confidence to which I've seen in the past. Immediately I recalled the conversation to which I had with my friend Mark Slavik earlier in the day about the potential of this particular game. I did not dismiss the thought entirely, but factored in that CSU has not lost a home game this season and have defeated the Penguins five straight times, including eight of the last nine.
In most games Cleveland State plays, the outcome hinges upon a few constant variables. Team defense, taking care of the basketball on offense, making the extra pass, and taking good shots which are staples of the Gary Waters doctrine. This is not a secret to success only known to Coach Waters (or any other coach for that matter) but it is something that he and every other basketball coach on the planet must emphasize before their team takes the court in any given game, today's being no different.
Having four senior starters is a luxury that very few coaches possess. Having three senior guards like Jeremy Montgomery, Trey Harmon and D'Aundray Brown, who average 9.3 , 11.4 and 12.4 points respectively is invaluable. Prior to today's tip, Jeremy Montgomery ranks second all-time in CSU history with 173 three point baskets made and Trey Harmon sits three spots behind at number five all-time with 164.
Youngstown State counters with a three guard lineup of their own with leading scorer Kendrick Perry and Blake Allen combining to average 29.2 points per game. With 6-6 Senior Forward DuShawn Brooks (only Sr starter), the Penguins fashion three starters that average double figures with his 10.5 per game contribution. This game was to match the experience of CSU and the resiliency of a young but talented YSU team.
The opening tip went to Youngstown State and the Penguins opened the scoring with a left wing three pointer by Blake Allen who finished the game with 9 points. Cleveland State's D'Aundray Brown countered two possessions later with a jumper from the left wing. After trading turnovers and missed shots, Aaron Pogue's up and under layup gave the Vikings a 4-3 lead off of a Trey Harmon assist. The ensuing 6:36 would produce a 16-3 Penguin run that silenced the Viking faithful and forced CSU coach Gary Waters to call a 30 second timeout.
As is usually the case when a coach calls a timeout to squelch an opposing team's run of that magnitude, Coach Water's squad answered with 24-10 run led by Montgomery's 14 points which included four 3 pointers, to close out the half with a two point 31-29 Viking's lead.
Youngstown State's Kendrick Perry opened up the 2nd half scoring with a pair of free throws off of a Montgomery foul to knot the score at 31 all. YSU would then take the lead on the next possession on a Damian Eargle layup and the teams would trade baskets and leads until CSU's Brown nailed a three pointer to give the Vikings a one point, 36-35 lead with 16:12 remaining in the game. No one in the Wolstein Center knew it, but that would be the last lead that Cleveland State would see for the remainder of the game. Youngstown State would embark upon a 17-8 run over a span of 5:25 that would provide a cushion that the Vikings cut into as they came within one after Anton Grady sank a pair of free throws to make the score 59-58 at the 4:31 mark, but could not overcome, even on it's own floor. That's a staple of Gary Waters' teams, they never quit, regardless of the score and/or circumstances. On this day, their resolve fell short as the Penguins afforded Cleveland State their first home loss of the season 73-67, which subsequently was CSU's first conference loss. Youngstown State and Cleveland State are now tied at 2-1 in conference play, and Coach Jerry Slocum is well aware of the importance of this victory as he has now defeated two of the top three teams in the conference, all on the road. All coaches understand the difficulty of winning on the road and more importantly, the necessity of winning at home.
I was truly impressed by Coach Jerry Slocum's team's effort. Most notably the double-double posted by Damian Eargle with 20 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes of court time. Ashen Ward and DuShawn Brooks added 15 and 17 points respectively and the team shot a lofty 58% from the field (50% 3pt) which proved to be the difference.
Cleveland State was led by Jeremy Montgomery's 21 (which led all scorers) and D'Aundray Brown's 20 point efforts as the Vikings shot a modest 46% from the field and 47% from behind the arc. Some in attendance point to the disparity in free throw attempts between the two teams which saw YSU make 11 more than CSU, but I disagree with that contention as the majority of those attempts came late in the second half when CSU was relegated to fouling the Penguins to maximize possession opportunities in the closing minutes of the game.
The importance of this win for the confidence of a young Youngstown State team can be put into context by one defining statistic. Youngstown State, after only three Horizon League contests this season, has equaled the win total (two) that they have achieved in each of the past two seasons in conference play. It seems that the continuous efforts of Coach Slocum to instill in his players the importance of belief and effort, truly can change the culture inside the program. Now the only thing to witness is the change in perception outside the program.
I am a believer as is my friend, and I am glad to see that the administration within the confines of the Youngstown State athletic department are seeing the results they had hoped for when lending a coach the support he deserved.
As much disappointment as I felt for Coach Waters, I felt equally as good for Coach Slocum, who I am guessing truly will have a Happy New Year!
YOUNGSTOWN STATE 73, at CLEVELAND STATE 67 12/31/2011
YOUNGSTOWN STATE 7-6 (2-1) -- D. Brooks 5-8 4-7 17; B. Allen 3-9 1-2 9; K. Perry 3-5 2-3 8; A. Ward 4-7 4-4 15; D. Eargle 8-11 4-5 20; J. Amiker 1-1 0-2 2; F. Larson 0-1 0-0 0; J. Chojnacki 1-1 0-0 2; N. Perry 0-0 0-0 0; D. Cole 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-43 15-23 73. CLEVELAND STATE 12-3 (2-1) -- J. Montgomery 7-10 1-2 21; D. Brown 7-13 4-4 20; T. Kamczyc 3-7 0-0 7; A. Grady 2-7 3-4 7; T. Harmon 2-7 0-0 4; A. Pogue 1-3 0-0 2; C. Lee 2-5 0-0 5; S. Douglas 0-0 1-2 1; L. Ndaye 0-0 0-0 0; I. Nwamu 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 24-52 9-12 67.
Three-point goals: YSU 8-16 (A. Ward 3-5; B. Allen 2-5; D. Brooks 3-5; K. Perry 0-1), CLST 10-21 (D. Brown 2-2; T. Harmon 0-3; J. Montgomery 6-8; T. Kamczyc 1-5; A. Grady 0-1; C. Lee 1-2); Rebounds: YSU 28 (D. Eargle 10), CLST 22 (J. Montgomery 5); Assists: YSU 17 (K. Perry 5), CLST 13 (T. Kamczyc 6); Total Fouls -- YSU 9, CLST 18; Fouled Out: YSU-None; CLST-None.