MIAMI – Cedric Jackson couldn't stop shivering. He had just won the biggest game of his life, and instead of celebrating he yanked a warm-up jacket over his shoulders, covered that with a terry cloth towel, crossed his arms and huddled himself into a ball. His body quivered like a tuning fork.
Two bags of IV fluid coursed through his veins and caused Cleveland State's locker room to feel more like a meat locker. Jackson had played himself to the point of exhaustion in the 13th-seeded Vikings' 84-69 victory against No. 4 seed Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA tournament, and if the penalty was a few hours of discomfort, so be it.
Because what Jackson and the rest of the Vikings delivered Friday night wasn't merely the biggest upset of a young tournament. It harkened to 1986, the last time Cleveland State made the NCAAs, and all of the sweet memories that accompanied the first No. 14 seed to advance to the Sweet 16.
Those Vikings of Mouse McFadden and Co. still resonate, even if Jackson was all of a week old when they singed Indiana in the first round. This is a different team than Kevin Mackey's run-and-stun bunch, one that better personifies its city. The Vikings are gritty, savvy and spirited, the perfect sort to knock off a Wake Forest team that once topped the national polls with its three future NBA lottery picks and ended the season embarrassed by a squad without a pro.
"We're a tough team," Jackson said between trembles, and, well, duh. He was the senior star, a couple assists and three rebounds shy of a triple-double at the point-guard spot, while bruising forward J'Nathan Bullock chipped in 21 points and backcourt mate Norris Cole scored 22 and locked down Wake's dangerous Jeff Teague.
It was in practice Monday that Cole raised his hand and volunteered: "I got Teague." And it was later that afternoon Cleveland State went through its customary drills with no fouls, its rebounding lessons with no out of bounds and its post-practice huddle with bumps and bruises and cuts and Advil on the mind.
"We go after each other and try to kill each other," Cleveland State coach Gary Waters said.
Cleveland State, which faces 12th-seeded Arizona in a battle of the upsets Sunday, traces its success directly to Waters. He took Kent State to the tournament twice prior to a middling five seasons with Rutgers. Waters won 10 games his first year and has cracked 20 in the two since. He preaches unity and fortitude, and his undersized team showed Friday that both can make up for any physical disadvantage.
"We ain't tall," Cleveland State guard Trevon Harmon said, "but we play like some big boys."
Particularly at the game's outset. Two minutes in, Cleveland State led 9-0 on triplicate 3-pointers. Wake looked stunned, its plan to pound the ball inside and bully the Vikings broken with 95 percent of the game left to play.
The Demon Deacons panicked, head coach Dino Gaudio applying a Band-Aid instead of a tourniquet. He tried to keep running against a Vikings team built to go step for step with Wake, and maybe one or two ahead. Cleveland State forced seven turnovers in the first 12 minutes, and by halftime the Vikings led 39-30.
"We're known for being counterpunchers," Cleveland State forward George Tandy said. "But today we had to come out and throw the first punch. We had the opportunity to throw the first punch, and they never recovered from it."
Along the sideline against Wake, Waters continuously reminded his team: They're going to wear down. They're going to wear down. The pressure of Jackson and Cole caused 18 turnovers, including seven by Teague. Cleveland State committed six as a team.
As the clock bled, Wake's body language disintegrated. The swagger that accompanied the Deacons when they ranked first in the country following 16 straight wins to start the season was long since gone and never to return.
"We figured this would be a tough game," Teague said, "but this? Out already? No. This hurts. We played so well at the beginning of the season. We just lost it."
And their loss, of course, was Cleveland State's gain. And Cleveland's. It's a proud city with only a smattering of sports memories to cherish. Even the '86 Vikings' run is sullied by Mackey's arrest four years later outside a crack house. So even if the Vikings don't draw well at the Convocation Center, their victory will make Cleveland smile, and for a city in such desperate need of good news, this provides a nice respite.
"I'm sorry that we broke a lot of brackets," Tandy said. He wasn't, of course. He and the rest of the Vikings want to take a sledgehammer to tournament pools because surely no one outside of CSU alums have them going very far, and very far is exactly where they planned to be months ago.
At the beginning of the season, the Vikings set a goal. They will not disclose it. Doing so would break the bond to the family, and that's a no-no in Waters' world. A Sweet 16 appearance is a good guess, though, and no wonder the Vikings didn't hoot and holler when Wake slumped off the court. A few hugs and handshakes sufficed.
Humility is simply one of the lessons Waters teaches in Success Class, the zero-credit course available only to the Cleveland State basketball team. Almost every Wednesday, especially during the offseason, Waters brings his team in to talk about life. Sometimes he lectures. Others he lets the players dictate the conversation. The subjects change. The lessons never do.
"We had to play a mind game tonight," Jackson said, and the Vikings did. They touched on all the themes of March: nostalgia and heartbreak and redemption, and they didn't do it because they were bigger or stronger or faster.
They were, just like their leader, too cool.
- Cleveland State