NKU (22-9) will likely accept an automatic bid to the National Invitation Tournament as regular-season Horizon League champion, but the Norse had expected more.
Unfortunately, the tournament's top seed blew a 15-point lead against the eighth-seeded Vikings (11-22), who lost twice as many games as they won this season. When the Vikings went on a 10-0 run in the last three minutes, NKU was doomed.
Coach John Brannen lamented his team's defense in the second half, especially in the last four minutes.
"We were the No. 1 defensive team in our league and we gave up 51 second-half points," Brannen said, "so it's very difficult to win in any environment, particularly a tournament environment, when momentum can be built ... for an underdog.
"Credit them. I was disappointed in our defense overall. We really didn't control the Appleby kid."
Cleveland State's Tyree Appleby scored 24 points to go with seven rebounds and four assists, and Kenny Carpenter added 15 points.
The Vikings closed to within a point six times before Appleby's free throws gave Cleveland State its first lead, 74-73, with 3:49 left.
The lead flip-flopped until Carpenter's 3-point play with 2:20 left sparked a 10-0 run for an 84-75 Vikings' lead with 1:02 to go. Lavone Holland II's three free throws cut it to 84-78, but the Vikings made five free throws in the final 44 seconds to seal it.
Drew McDonald scored 24 points with 13 rebounds for his 17th double-double for the Norse (22-9). Holland and Carson Williams added 10 points apiece and Williams grabbed 10 rebounds.