CLEVELAND (AP)—When the final horn sounded, Cleveland State’s fans poured onto the floor and celebrated a win unlike almost any other in the school’s history.
In a swarming mass, they danced, jumped and relished a night that made them even prouder to be Vikings.
“It was a beautiful feeling,” forward J’Nathan Bullock said.
After a long, long wait.
Cedric Jackson scored 14 points and Cleveland State, a program in disarray for most of the past 20 years, stunned No. 12 Butler 56-52 on Thursday night for the Vikings’ first regular-season win over an AP Top 25 team.
Bullock added 14 points, the last one coming on a free throw with 2.6 seconds left.
The Vikings (13-5, 6-0 Horizon League) came in 1-26 in games against ranked opponents, with their only win coming on March 14, 1986, a shocking upset of No. 16 Indiana in the NCAA tournament under then-coach Kevin Mackey. Since that memorable win, Cleveland State had lost 19 straight games against ranked opponents.
“It’s big,” second-year coach Gary Waters said. “What we’re trying to do is establish a foundation. It (the win) will help people understand that there are some good things going on at Cleveland State.”
Freshman Matt Howard scored 16 points and Pete Campbell 15 to lead Butler (16-2, 5-2), which missed a barrage of 3-pointers in the final seconds as the Bulldogs tried to tie it. Mike Green, their leading scored had 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting before fouling out and senior A.J. Graves had 5 and went only 2-of-11 from the floor.
It was Cleveland State’s night from the start and the win validated Waters’ impressive turnaround with the Vikings, who were only 10-21 last season and haven’t had a winning season since 2000-01.
On its visit last year, Butler made a school and conference record 20 3-pointers in a 92-50 thumping of Cleveland State. But other than Campbell, who made 5-of-7 3-pointers, the Bulldogs were just 6-of-23 overall from behind the arc and couldn’t buy a 3 when they needed one down the stretch.
But even then, the Bulldogs led just once and were outplayed by the Vikings, who appeared intimidated in recent losses to Ohio State and Kent State.
“You watch Cleveland State on tape and it’s easy to see how good they are,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “They play hard and they play with passion.”
Green’s two free throws pulled within 50-48 with 3:21 left, but Jackson, a transfer from St. John’s, was left open on the right wing and drilled a 3-pointer to put the Vikings ahead by five.
Cleveland State’s backers, who have seen so many potential upsets slip away in the past, began sensing the upset—as did Waters.
“I knew we were going to win the game when we were up by five,” he said.
But Graves drove through the lane and dropped in a high-arching shot that went 20 feet in the air to make it 53-50.
But with a chance to pull Butler closer after a turnover, Graves, an 89-percent free throw shooter, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 2:23 left. George Tandy then hit a 15-foot jumper for Cleveland State and Campbell, Graves and Juilan Betko misfired on 3s in the last minute as Butler lost for the first time in nine games.
Cleveland State has been a mess for years. However, Waters, who built Kent State into a perennial 20-win team and had success at Rutgers, is slowly turning around the Vikings, who were only 3-13 in the Horizon last year.
It’s been 21 years since Cleveland State made its memorable NCAA tourney run when guard Kenny “Mouse” McFadden and cast of unknowns upset Bobby Knight’s Hoosiers and Saint Joseph’s before losing in a regional semifinal to David Robinson and Navy.
All Waters needed was a signature win to make everyone believe the small school could do big things again—and now he’s got it.
“It’s a big, big step,” Waters said. “It hasn’t sunk in just yet.”