Despite a lethargic performance that ended with Cleveland State grabbing a 73-53 win over Illinois-Chicago on Thursday at the Wolstein Center, it gave the Vikings reason to be humble before hosting Saturday's battle for first place with Green Bay.
"On the stat sheet we did everything right," said Cleveland State coach Gary Waters. "But we went through the motions and we will have to play much better against a Green Bay team that knows how important that game will be," continued Waters, who saw his team win for the seventh straight time and sixth consecutive time in Horizon League play.
What Waters saw on the stat sheet was CSU shooting 50% from the field including 55% from behind the 3-point line and limiting the Flames to 35% from the field and holding a 37-32 edge on the boards against the top rebounding team in the league.
Getting the points for the Vikings necessary to pull away from a UIC team that fell to 0-11 in league play were Trey Lewis with 18, Bryn Forbes and Jon Harris with 15 each and Anton Grady with 12.
What was missing was scoring from current Horizon League player of the week Charlie Lee, who was limited to two points on 1-for-4 from the field. Lee who had games of 31 and 25 points in road wins over Oakland and Wright State respectively, didn't even take a shot until there were 13 minutes remaining in the second half.
"That's what we talked about after the game," said Waters. "We will need guys like Charlie and everybody else to play well if we are going to beat Green Bay."
The Phoenix took round one on Jan. 2 in Green Bay, 66-55 to open the league season. What was missing was Harris, who sat out that game with a concussion.
What concerned Waters after defeating UIC was his team let a 10-point lead slip to a 30-25 advantage at the half. He felt it was a chance for the Vikings to put the game away and they let the Flames stick around.
"I know this sounds funny, but they are really the best 0-11 team you will ever see," said Waters, who secured his 325th career win and is the Vikings' winningest coach with a 154-109 record in eight seasons at Cleveland State.
After a 3-pointer by Harris to end the first half, the Vikings turned to the trio of Forbes, Harris and Grady to deny the Flames their first conference win by combining for the first 25 Cleveland State points in the second half. That scoring burst included points on six consecutive trips down the floor highlighted by one of three 3-pointers on the night by Harris, who did all his damage after coming off the bench.
Those 25 points from the Viking threesome pushed Cleveland State out to a 52-36 lead as Forbes cashed in both of his 3-pointers.
As a team, Cleveland State, 18-9 overall and winners of 11-of-14, came into the game tied with Duke for the top 3-point shooting percentage in Division I at .420. The Vikings didn't hurt their cause, going 10-for-18 (.556) on the night.
Home for the first time after a 4-game road swing that found Cleveland State win all four and extend its winning streak to six with a win at Wright State, the Vikings stayed one game back of Green Bay, which spanked host Youngstown State, 71-40. That left the Phoenix at 10-2 while the Vikings sit at 9-3 with the win over UIC.
At stake in Cleveland State's game at 4 p.m. Saturday on SportsTime Ohio with Green Bay is the top spot in the Horizon League, which awards the regular season champ the honor hosting the league's championship tournament semi-finals on March 8.
The regular season champ and second place teams are awarded double byes before entering the tournament in semi-finals at the home floor of the regular season champ. The final, with an NCAA berth on the line, will be played March 11 on the home floor of the top remaining seed.