INDIANAPOLIS – See the coach of the new Horizon League women’s champions celebrating out there on the court Tuesday afternoon? See him rushing down to hug his parents, and fighting a tear or two as he gazed around Indiana Farmers Coliseum?
Why the emotion? How would anyone feel if he was fulfilling a dream in a building where over the past three years he had left as . . .
Yeah, the Coliseum has meant a lot of bad karma in the life of Chris Kielsmeier. But not this Tuesday. This Tuesday he was happy and healthy and had part of a championship net hanging around his neck after the Vikings beat Green Bay 73-61 for the Horizon League title and their first NCAA tournament bid in 13 years.
Not like last season, when they lost in the championship game. Or 2021, when they lost in the semifinals. Or 2020, when they also lost in the semifinals. That’d be enough to make a guy wary of the entire zip code, but there was more. He was very tired that day in 2020, believing it was the grind of a long season. The team went home after the defeat and two days later he was in the hospital coughing up blood, just as the entire nation heard alarms going off. COVID had come to America and Chris Kielsmeier might have been the first Division I coach to face it as a victim.
It was a frightening time – “Isolated in a hospital bed hearing all the bad news,” he was saying – and it took him a while to get out of danger. Even now, three years later, his sense of smell is not quite right.
But now he’s also a champion. The Coliseum will mean something very different to him from this point.
“I can assure you that the moments and the feelings that I’m having right now will be the ones that carry over and the other ones will continue to drive you and motivate you,” he said. “I never lose where I’ve come from. A big part of why today got done was the belief that this program had because of our struggles and our failures, not only on the court in between the lines but in life.
“We’ve been chasing this thing for five years.”
The record suggested Cleveland State was ready to take the last step. While 2,700 local school kids in attendance considerably spiked the noise level for Coliseum, you could count on one hand the number of 30-win teams bouncing around Division I college basketball.
The South Carolina women, of course. The Charleston men, Florida Gulf Coast women. And before the afternoon was out, there would be a fourth. Cleveland State is 30-4. It was No. 30 that meant the most.
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The Vikings had come here on a mission, born from so many past near-misses.
“We’ve had a chip on our shoulder pretty much the entire season,” forward Brittni Moore said.
Horizon League player of the year Destiny Leo felt that, too. “I think from the past few years we’ve really learned what it’s like to be on the other side of this. It was something that none of us really wanted to go through again.”
Not that it was easy, They had to rally from 10 points behind to beat Northern Kentucky 63-60 in overtime in Monday's semifinals, as Leo took over with 25 points. “She was giving me the look in the huddle (before overtime). I don’t know what the look was, but she gave me a look I hadn’t seen,” Kielsmeier said. “I think it was, coach, just give me the ball.”
Said Leo, “I don’t really know this look he’s talking about.” Well, she went 9-for-15 shooting with five 3-pointers. That look.
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Tuesday, they had to find a way to beat a Green Bay team they had lost to during the regular season by 17 and 15 points. The 13-for-27 shooting from beyond the arc helped.
“I’ll never forget leaving here the first time after we lost,” Kielsmeier said. “I got on our fan bus and thanked everybody for their support and belief in us and (said) hang with us because we’ll be back here and we’ll win it one day.”
Tuesday was one day. When it was over and he had shaken hands with the Green Bay team, Kielsmeier immediately went to an end section to hug parents and friends. They had been here for the tough losses and they had stood vigil in 2020 during the fight of his life with COVID. They had been down the rocky Coliseum road with him.
“I wanted one more championship run with them,” he said of his parents. “Maybe many more in the future but I really wanted one more. It’s just a surreal feeling because those are the people that pick you up when you’re down, and you get down a lot in this business. You’ve got to have somebody to lean on.
“Those people mean the world to me, and this program means the world to me.”
And Indiana Farmers Coliseum? He loves the place.