The growing pains for the Cleveland State men's basketball team continued on Friday night with a 66-59 setback to visiting Green Bay which got 23 points from Keifer Sykes and another 17 from Alec Brown.
"We let another one get away," said Cleveland State head coach Gary Waters, whose team fell to 4-9 in Horizon League play with the loss and gave CSU little chance of hosting a tournament game.
The loss to Green Bay leaves the Vikings, now in seventh place, three games behind sixth place Youngstown State, a winner on Friday against visiting Milwaukee.
The teams that finish fourth through sixth receive a first round home game in the Horizon League tournament against teams that finish seventh through ninth. Teams that claim the top three positions receive a first round bye with the regular season champ getting a second bye and the right to host the turnament semi-finals.
"It came down to a three possessions," added Waters. "Three things can beat you. Turnovers, missed free throws and offensive rebounds and we had each on three straight possessions late in the game."
Trailing 58-56 with 1:31 left, the Vikings saw Luda Ndaye split a pair of free throws to leave CSU down a point. Next time down the floor, the Phoenix had Jordan Fouse in the right place at the right time, getting an offensive rebound and a put back on a shot that appeared to miss the rim to push Green Bay back on top by three at 60-57 with 1:04 left.
Cleveland State's Charlie Lee, who had 15 of his team best 18 points in the first half, then drove the lane where he was credited with a missed shot that just as easily been ruled a turnover. It dimmed the hopes of hopes the Viking faithful at the Wolstein Center.
The Vikings could have avoided being in a close contest after seeing their 36-27 halftime lead grow to 13 with back-to-baskets from Tim Kamczyc and Sebastian Douglas on their first two possessions.
But the Phoenix, who scored only three baskets in the final 12:31 of the first half including a scoreless stretch of 6:21, caught fire early in the second 20 minutes with a 15-0 run capped by a pair of free throws from Fouse that gave Green Bay a 42-40 lead.
The Green Bay run came when the Vikings had nine consecutive scoreless possessions including five that ended with turnovers.
Cleveland State got back to even at 42-42 with a jumper by Ndaye and secured its final lead of the night at 45-42 when Bryn Forbes hit the first of his three 3-pointers with 8:31 left.
But down the stretch, it was Brown and Sykes who carried the Phoenix the rest of the way, combining to score 22 of the last 24 Green Bay points. Brown and Sykes, who were limted to a total of nine points in the first 20 minutes, scored 31 of Green Bay's 39 second half points.
Green Bay was not to be denied on offense, scoring on 10 of the last 13 times it touched the ball including seven straight free throws by Sykes with the final six in the last 32 seconds that iced the game.
What killed the Vikings was seeing Brown, a 7-1 senior, who blocked five CSU shots, go outside to hit a pair of 3-pointers with the first getting Green Bay the lead at 47-45 with 6:43 remaining.
"Those 3-pointers by Brown and Sykes were big," said Waters. "Sykes isn't a 3-point shooter but marquee players do those things and Sykes stepped up and hit the shot."
Besides 18 points from Lee, the Vikings had 11 from Forbes, who was scoreless until he hit the first of his trip of 3-pointers that gave the Vikings their 45-42 lead. Forbes, who leads the Vikings with 12.3 points a game, had foul trouble in the first half and played just 18 minutes on the night.
Douglas, Kamczyc and Ndaye each added nine points while Douglas had a team- best six points and Ndaye blocked three Green Bay shots.
The Phoenix, who moved into a tie for third with idle Wright State at 8-5, got a double-double from Greg Mays, who had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
The Vikings, 12-15 overall and losers of three in a row and seven of nine since a 72-64 win at home against Detroit on Jan. 12, return to the Wolstein Center at 2 p.m. Sunday to host Milwaukee. The Panthers have won just two of 13 league games but one of the two wins is a 69-57 decision over Cleveland State.
Green Bay, 14-12 overall with the win, stays in Ohio, playing at 2 p.m. Sunday at Youngstown State, 7-6 with its Friday win over Milwaukee.