March 10, 2009

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Contact: Brian McCann

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. - The transformation is complete and Cleveland State is going to the big dance.

In just his third year at the helm of the Viking basketball program, Gary Waters has CSU in the NCAA tournament for the first time in 23 years after the third-seeded Vikings knocked off top-seeded and 17th-ranked Butler, 57-54, on Tuesday night in the Horizon League Championship game in Hinkle Fieldhouse.

CSU improves to 25-10 overall and will wait until Sunday to find out where, when and who they will be playing in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. The Bulldogs fell to 26-5.

CSU's 25 wins are tied for the second most in school-history, trailing the 29 wins by the 1986-87 squad.

Cedric Jackson was voted the tournament Most Valuable Player, finishing with 19 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in helping CSU to the NCAA tournament for the first time since the 1986 squad advanced to the "Sweet 16".

Just like its other three games in the league tournament, CSU found itself trailing in the second half when Butler took an eight point lead (39-31) with 18:21 left on a Matt Howard dunk.

However, the Vikings began a flurry of three-pointers, including back-to-back trifectas from J'Nathan Bullock and Jeremy Montgomery to bring CSU within two points with 17:46 to play (39-37).

A Shelvin Mack jumper stopped the Viking run, but Bullock converted a jumper, George Tandy hit a pair of free throws and Montgomery nailed a three-pointer from the corner to give the Vikings a 47-45 lead with 11:22 to play.

Three consecutive free throws from Howard gave Butler a one-point lead (48-47) at the 10:11 mark, its final lead of the game, as Jackson answered with a three-pointer midway through the second half and followed with a layup to give the Vikings a 52-48 lead with 9:11 left.

The Vikings would not trail the rest of the way, however, the Bulldogs did have two chances to tie the game at the end of regulation, Mack and Gordon Hayward missed 3-pointers as time expired and the Vikings and their hundreds of faithful that made the trip began a wild celebration at mid-court.

The win was bittersweet for the Vikings five seniors - Jackson, Bullock, Chris Moore, Tandy and Renard Fields - a group that helped the program turnaround after CSU went just 4-25 just five seasons ago. And after going 10-21 in Waters' first season at the helm, the group helped CSU to back-to-back 20-win seasons, including 21-13 a season ago and a berth in the NIT.

In more ways than one, this year's march to the NCAA tournament began 222 days ago when the 10 returnees boarded a plane for a 10-day tour of Spain in which they played four games. Since then, the Vikings played 39 games (today was No. 40), and had endured countless hours of practice, film sessions, lectures, workouts and team talks, all of which built to this moment.

CSU, which lost last season's league title game to Butler and lost both regular season games to the Bulldogs by two points each, was playing its fourth game of the league championship in a span of one week. The Vikings became the first team since 2002 (UIC) to win the tournament seeded lower than third.

Butler led for a majority of the first half, including its largest lead of eight points on several occasions, but CSU closed to within 32-28 at the intermission before rallying in the second half.

CSU hit a season-high 10 three-pointers, going 10-for-19.

Montgomery added 11 points off the bench, while Bullock finished with 10 points and five boards.

Mack led Butler with 18 points, while Howard scored 14.

The Vikings will now await word on its destination and opponent for the NCAA tournament. That announcement will come on Sunday evening.