Phoenix clinch at least share of Horizon title
By Greg Bates
GREEN BAY – As the old adage goes, “Defense wins championships.”
Coach Kevin Borseth lives by that. His players epitomize that mindset.
Suffocating fourth-quarter defense helped capture a championship for the Green Bay women’s basketball team on Thursday night at the Kress Events Center.
The Phoenix — up just two points going into the final quarter — outscored Cleveland State 19-6 to pull
off a 64-49 victory in a battle for at least a share of the Horizon League title.
Cleveland State came into the game averaging 78.6 points per conference contest. Green Bay’s clampdown defense held the Vikings to a season low in points.
“We played hard, and we’ve been doing that all year long,” Borseth said. “Everybody’s been doing their job. Cleveland [State’s] a good team, obviously, and we were able to hold them down. Taking care of the ball is a big part of that, but, obviously, both sides of the ball got to complement one another. But it was a great effort by our crew tonight.”
Destiny Leo came into the showdown averaging 18.3 points per game for Cleveland State, and she was held to just 10 points on 2-for-11 shooting. Green Bay’s Bailey Butler played lights out defense on the Vikings star.
“Bailey was really intent on keeping the ball out of [Leo’s] hands as best she could,” Borseth said. “Leo’s probably the player of the year in our league and just a phenomenal player and I thought we really had a very big sense of urgency guarding her when you needed to.”
Green Bay — winners of 21 of its last 22 games — and Cleveland State — winners of 26 of its last 28 games — both came into the game with identical 16-2 records in conference play.
The win gave the Phoenix program its 21 st Horizon League title. It can win the crown outright with a victory this Saturday afternoon over visiting Purdue Fort Wayne.
Green Bay guard Natalie McNeal came off the bench to add a huge spark offensively. She tied a career high with 16 points and added five rebounds.
The junior transferred from St. Louis last year for a chance to play at a program that wins titles. Mission accomplished in her first season at Green Bay.
“This is like a dream come true, really,” McNeal said. “We’re not done yet, that’s the best part. I don’t even have the words to explain, I’m just so happy.”
Green Bay (24-4) had a tough time adjusting to Cleveland State’s zone defense in the opening half, but the Phoenix took a 23-18 lead on a Jenna Guyer basket. Cleveland State (26-4) answered with a 9-2 run to end the half and take a 27-25 lead into the break.
The Phoenix shot 34.4% from the field in the opening half, but just 1-for-10 from beyond the 3-point arc.
Despite the tough shooting, Borseth’s group weathered the storm.
“They had our movement down,” Borseth said. “You play somebody the first time, your movement gets pretty good and you kind of settle in and then they make adjustments and all of a sudden you find yourself holding the bag. We were, and I’m not so sure we did a very good job of it in the second half. But obviously defenses make adjustments, and they did a good job with their adjustments. Our defense held us in there, obviously — hit a few buckets here and there, but it was a challenge. I’m glad we were able to hang with them in the first half and just kind of be there.”
The Phoenix had a better shooting third quarter, connecting on 8 of 14 field goals and took a 45-43 lead into the final 10 minutes.
Cleveland State scored the first bucket of the fourth, and that’s when Green Bay’s defense tightened up.
The Vikings were 2-for-12 from the field the rest of the game.
McNeal scored three straight baskets for the Phoenix and a Sydney Levy 3-pointer put the home team up 56-45 with 3:34 remaining.
Green Bay was 8-for-10 from the free throw line in the final 1:10 to close out the victory.
Jasmine Kondrakiewicz logged a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) for the Phoenix. Butler added 11 points and Levy 10.
McNeal picked apart Cleveland State’s zone in the last quarter with some close-range shots in the middle of the lane.
“I like being in the middle, that’s my favorite spot to be on the floor,” McNeal said. “It’s not really hard for (coach Borseth) not to tell me to go there because I’ll probably find myself there anyway. I think we moved the ball really well, especially out of the middle and then getting to the corner and just looking to get our shots we know we’re going to hit.”
Winning another conference title is always special for Borseth. It is his sixth Horizon League regular-season title in 11 years during his second stint as coach at Green Bay.
“I’m really happy for the players,” Borseth said. “Like I told you earlier, we do everything the same every year in our coaching techniques. We don’t change a lot. It’s the players that really make all this work. …
“I think we’ve got some good leadership top to bottom and all of them have bought into that, so it’s pretty fun to be around that. I guess you don’t realize what that looks like until you feel it, and I’ve had it before and I’ve got an opportunity to have that again, so it’s pretty special.”