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Jeff Eisenberg

Cleveland State guard delivers one of year's top performances

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Even though Cleveland State fans erupted each time he scored a point or grabbed a board late in Saturday's game, guard Norris Cole insists he had no idea how many of either he had until TV announcers told him during an interview afterward.

"I was very surprised," he said by phone. "I was playing to win the game. I didn't even think to check the stats."

By the time Cole finished leading the Vikings to an 86-76 victory over Horizon League foe Youngstown State, his line in the box score looked like it was straight out of a video game. He played all 40 minutes, scoring 41 points, grabbing 20 rebounds and dishing out nine assists to fall one shy of the first triple-double in school history.

Cole and ex-Oklahoma star Blake Griffin are now the only college players to eclipse 40 points and 20 rebounds in a game in the last 15 years. That's not bad company for a 6-foot-3 senior who had no Division I scholarship offers besides Cleveland State yet has blossomed into one of the nation's top point guards.

"The coaches told me to stay in attack mode," Cole said. "Anytime I'm in attack mode, it opens it up for other guys and it raises our team to another level. So that's what I wanted to do was be in attack mode on every touch."

Cleveland State needed every one of Cole's points and rebounds to snap a two-game losing streak against a scrappy Youngstown State team that led throughout much of the game.

Youngstown State geared its entire defense toward slowing down Cole, yet nothing the Penguins did was successful. Although they tried zone, man-to-man, hedging on ball screens or switching them, Cole still scorched them off the dribble, in transition or from behind the arc, sinking 11 of 22 shots, 5 of 10 3-pointers and 14 of 17 free throws.

The 20 rebounds from Cole were four more than any player in the Horizon League has pulled down in one game this season. Asked how a point guard could possibly get that many rebounds, the ever-humble Cole downplayed the accomplishment, attributing it to the long rebounds created by Youngstown State's reliance on the perimeter jump shot.

"The sooner I can get the ball in my hands, the sooner the break can start," Cole said. "And then when they were shooting shots, they shot a lot of threes, so they're on the outside. I was just attacking the glass, trying to get the ball and start the break."

The attention Cole will receive from this performance may be a tad uncomfortable for a kid who's accustomed to excelling outside the limelight.

A four-sport star at Dayton's Dunbar High, Cole spent his summers preparing for football season rather than playing AAU basketball like other Division I hoops prospects. He also wasn't the featured option at Dunbar, playing alongside the likes of former Ohio State star Daequan Cook and future Cleveland State teammate Aaron Pogue.

Cole planned to play football and basketball at NAIA Walsh University before his high school coaches called Cleveland State and begged the Vikings to take a closer look at their point guard. The assistant coaches monitored him during the season and then head coach Gary Waters showed up in the state tournament, offering Cole a scholarship after he scored 18 points in the title game.

A backup point guard as a freshman and a part-time starter at off guard during Cleveland State's NCAA tournament season the following year, Cole took over at point guard as a junior and immediately thrived. This season, he's elevated his game to an even higher level, a jump he attributes to the offseason work he put in with the coaching staff and to the confidence he gained holding his own against top college point guards at the Deron Williams camp last summer.

"It was a really big confidence boost playing at the highest level with those guys," Cole said. "It was good to promote Cleveland State like that, to put our program out there on the map. That's what I was playing for out there. I was playing for respect and playing to show that Cleveland State's a good program."

Cole has certainly accomplished that this season, helping the Vikings rebound from a sub-.500 season last year to win their first 12 games this season and emerge as a Horizon League contender. At 22-5 overall and 11-4 in league, Cleveland State is just a game back of first-place Valparaiso in the loss column.

Although Cole has raised his scoring average to 20.3 points per game and earned a place on the 10-man list of finalists for the Cousy Award last week, he probably still doesn't receive the attention he deserves. But that doesn't bother a kid who's more interested in helping his team win a conference title and get back to the NCAA tournament than he is padding his own stats.

"I can't control what people say, what people think, whether people overlook me," he said. "I can only control what I do on the court. If I'm that good, people will respect me. If not, I'm fine with that too. As long as my team is winning and my teammates and the people I love are comfortable with me, I'm fine."

Follow Jeff Eisenberg on Twitter at @JeffEisenberg

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