With a victory Tuesday night in the Horizon League conference tournament final, the Cleveland State University men's basketball team has won a ticket to March Madness.
CSU will play in the annual NCAA Division 1 Men's Basketball Tournament for only the third time in the program's history. The Vikings appeared previously in 1986, under head coach Kevin Mackey, and in 2009, under head coach Gary Waters, the winningest coach in CSU's history. In both prior appearances, the Vikings defeated first round opponents in thrilling upsets.
In 1986, the 14-seed Vikings beat the University of Indiana and then St. Joseph University, losing in the Sweet Sixteen to 7-seed Navy and its starting center, David Robinson. In 2009, the Cedric Jackson-led Vikes, a 13-seed, beat 4-seed Wake Forest before falling to 12-seed Arizona in the second round.
With the 80-69 defeat of Oakland Tuesday evening, CSU moved to a 19-7 record on the year, (16-7 in the regular season). The win capped a dramatic procession through the Horizon League conference tournament, including a triple-overtime victory over Purdue Fort-Wayne last week and a come-from-behind victory over Milwaukee Monday night.
The Oakland game was a wire-to-wire victory for the Vikings, with so much on-court dominance and bench enthusiasm that the ESPN announcing crew fell in love with the team and its ragtag assortment of Junior College transfers and castoffs. They warned that any team playing the Vikings in the NCAA tournament would have its hands full, regardless of seeding.
Junior guard Tre Gomillion — a real college basketball player, I'll tell you what — scored 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds for the Vikings. Senior bulldozer Torey Patton tallied a double-double as well, with 23 points and 10 boards. British Virgin Islands native D'Moi Hodge, with pogo stick athleticism, had about 1,000 blocks and was all over the court.
But the star of the show, as far as the broadcast crew was concerned, may have been Junior Ben Sternberg, a Beachwood High School alum who didn't see a single minute of action on court, but who paced the bench warmers in chants per minute. After a team medical trainer cleaned blood from Torey Patton's elbow, in the second half, Sternberg applauded the trainer's work with as much gusto as he would have a thunderous alley-oop.
"This bench just loves a good performance," the announcer noted.
Though there was no NCAA men's basketball tourney in 2020 — it was canceled due to the Coronavirus — the Horizon League final Tuesday was a revenge game of sorts for the Vikings. Last year, Oakland defeated CSU in the conference tournament's first round.
CSU head coach Dennis Gates has won Horizon League Coach of the Year in both of his first two seasons at CSU's helm and the ESPN announcers hinted that his leadership could explain the cohesiveness and toughness of the Vikings' squad. He has now guided CSU to their second-ever Horizon League title.
March Madness will begin on Friday, March 19. Most of the tournament's 67 games
will be played in Indianapolis: on two courts inside Lucas Oil Stadium, courts at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indiana Farmers Coliseum, Mackey Arena in West Lafayette and Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington.
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