The first of Saturday's semi-final games featured two teams seemingly moving in opposite directions. The Detroit Titans entered with wins in eight of its last nine games, while the Cleveland State Vikings had lost five of its last seven. However, CSU did win two games last week to secure the #2 seed and a double bye in this tournament, and one of those wins was over Detroit.
The Vikings welcomed back their senior guard D'Aundray Brown for this game. Brown missed nearly eight full games since suffering a groin injury a month ago, and CSU's struggles paralleled his absence from the lineup. As their second leading scorer and a member of the Horizon League all-defensive team, his return was expected to provide a significant boost to his team.
As the #3 seed, Detroit had to climb the bracket ladder to the semis, and thus was playing its third game in five days. Against a well-rested opponent, fatigue could very well be a consideration in a close contest.
The battle was a fairly even one for the first ten minutes, with CSU holding a 17-13 lead, when we experienced our first momentum surge. Spurred by eight CSU turnovers in a span of five minutes, Detroit went on an 18-4 run to hold a double-digit lead as the half approached. Two Anton Grady free throws cut the lead to eight, which set up a most unusual sequence of events to close the half.
Titan guard Donavan Foster drove the lane, but missed a runner, and the rebound was tipped out toward the top of the key. CSU freshman guard Charlie Lee grabbed the ball and in a single motion heaved it from about three-quarter court. This was a problem, since about ten seconds still remained on the clock. Brown went on a full-out sprint to the other end of the court, and chased down the ball that had slammed off the backboard. As he was falling out of bounds, Brown saved the ball to Grady, who flipped it toward Jeremy Montgomery near mid-court as Grady fell to the ground. Montgomery hooked a pass to Tim Kamczyc, who had just then crossed the halfcourt line, and Kamczyc drove in for an uncontested layup that beat the halftime buzzer. This was part Keystone Kops, part Harlem Globetrotters, involving all five Vikings to get them to within six points at the break.
I wasn't sure that weird play could generate any momentum, but Cleveland State went on an 8-2 run to open the second half and evened the score at 33. Ray McCallum Jr. then began to demonstrate why he's considered an NBA prospect. Over the next eight minutes, McCallum had five points, two rebounds, and three assists; his alley-oop pass leading to a LaMarcus Lowe dunk gave the Titans a 49-38 lead with nine minutes to go.
Alas, the Titans continued to have trouble with prosperity, and hit a six-minute lull in which CSU scored eleven straight points to tie the game again. Detroit's defense then woke up - a Chase Simon steal led to a dunk, followed by a McCallum steal that produced two free throws. A Detroit parade to the foul line, mainly by McCallum, offset some scores from the Vikings. In the process, CSU senior guards Trey Harmon and Montgomery both fouled out. This made free throw by McCallum with 16.1 seconds remaining gave Detroit a seemingly comfortable four-point lead.
As we've learned, the Titans don't deal well with comfort, and Simon fouled CSU's Ike Nwamu on a three-point attempt. Simon caught a break when the shot came up short, and then caught another break when Nwamu missed the first of three free throws. Nwamu hit the next two, and then McCallum was fouled yet again.
With a chance to virtually ice the game, McCallum hit only one of the two free throws, leaving the Vikings with a chance to tie the game with a three. With the senior guards out of the game, the 5'9" freshman Lee took it upon himself to take the big shot. Just as with his shot to close the first half, this too was a problem. Lee's pull-up three-point attempt was taken directly in front of Detroit's 6'10" Lowe. That battle of David vs. Goliath went to Goliath, as Lowe swatted the ball away, and then tipped it to McCallum. Two Simon free throws with a fraction of a second left on the clock set the final margin of victory.
While this was an impressive victory for Detroit, the game encapsulated their entire season. They show a tremendous amount of potential, and sometimes appear to be a team that could win games in the NCAA tournament. McCallum in particular was outstanding here, and showed the ability to lead his team to a big win. They also have other moments in which they appear generally disinterested in being on the court and very much out of synch as teammates. As I have watched them play in person over these past two games, I kept thinking of the old U.S. Army recruiting slogan "Be All That You Can Be." With a berth in Tuesday's conference championship game, Detroit has a chance to achieve its primary goal for the season and to advance to the NCAA tournament; however, to have any success on that stage, the Titans will have to live up to that old Army motto.
DETROIT 63, CLEVELAND STATE 58 03/03/2012
DETROIT 21-13 (11-7) -- R. McCallum 7-10 11-13 26; C. Simon 3-11 2-2 8; J. Calliste 3-7 4-4 13; E. Holman 2-6 2-4 6; D. Foster 3-10 0-0 6; L. Lowe 2-4 0-0 4; E. Bruinsma 0-1 0-0 0; D. Anderson 0-1 0-0 0; P. Boutte 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-50 19-23 63. CLEVELAND STATE 22-10 (12-6) -- T. Kamczyc 5-8 0-0 11; D. Brown 5-7 6-7 17; J. Montgomery 5-11 0-0 11; T. Harmon 3-9 2-2 8; A. Grady 0-7 2-2 2; A. Pogue 2-6 1-2 5; C. Lee 0-5 2-2 2; M. Mason 0-2 0-0 0; L. Ndaye 0-1 0-0 0; I. Nwamu 0-0 2-3 2. Totals 20-56 15-18 58.
Three-point goals: UDM 4-16 (C. Simon 0-5; D. Foster 0-1; J. Calliste 3-6; E. Bruinsma 0-1; R. McCallum 1-3), CLST 3-13 (D. Brown 1-1; T. Harmon 0-3; J. Montgomery 1-5; T. Kamczyc 1-1; C. Lee 0-2; M. Mason 0-1); Rebounds: UDM 31 (C. Simon 8), CLST 28 (D. Brown 7); Assists: UDM 12 (R. McCallum 5), CLST 8 (J. Montgomery 3); Total Fouls -- UDM 18, CLST 24; Fouled Out: UDM-None; CLST-J. Montgomery.