Confidence builder: YSU enters Saturday’s contest as the team to beat

Senior guard Melissa Thompson goes up for a shot in the season opener. After going 4-9 in non-conference play, the Penguins are undefeated in the Horizon League.
Senior guard Melissa Thompson goes up for a shot in the season opener. After going 4-9 in non-conference play, the Penguins are undefeated in the Horizon League.

Youngstown State University women’s basketball coach John Barnes is all too familiar being in first place.

He was an assistant coach last season with the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, a team that won the Horizon League and reached the NCAA Tournament.

Since he was hired as the new head coach after Bob Boldon’s departure, Barnes, so far, has brought winning along with him. He also understands the meaning of being the No. 1 team early.

“It’s great to be in first place,” Barnes said in Saturday’s postgame press conference. “They’ve worked really hard to get there, but the season is still really young. We have a lot of time left. We have a lot of games left.”

The Penguins (8-9, 4-0 in the Horizon League) come off an 87-71 victory over the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Saturday. YSU has never even started 3-0 in the Horizon League since joining in 2001.

The Penguins have already won as many games as they did during their non-conference schedule, winning only four games in 13 attempts.

“I just think it’s a lot of confidence,” senior Liz Hornberger said on Saturday. “Winning two games on the road is big, and then you get to come home and play two big teams really helps.”

YSU defeated Valparaiso University and the University of Illinois at Chicago on the road to open conference play. The Penguins then defeated the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on Thursday before Saturday’s victory. Cleveland State University fell to the Phoenix on Saturday that allowed YSU to take the top spot in the conference.

Numerous players have stepped up for YSU since the team struggled early on. Hornberger is the reigning Horizon League Player of the Week for the first time in her career. She made eight 3-pointers while playing all but two minutes during the week. She scored 11 points against the Phoenix and 17 versus Milwaukee.

Jenna Hirsch is the reigning Freshman of the Week. She began conference play with four total points in two games before hitting her stride.

Hirsch scored a career-high 20 points against the Phoenix and set a career high with nine assists against Milwaukee. She added eight points and played almost every second on Saturday.

“She’s getting better and better,” Barnes said. “She’s been getting more aggressive every day, which helps out her. The more aggressive she is, the better she plays.

“That’s what we’re trying to get across to her. When she’s hesitant or not going really hard, that’s when mistakes happen for her.”

Next for the Penguins is another home contest against Oakland University on Saturday, a team that nobody is truly familiar with. The Golden Grizzlies joined the Horizon League last year after Loyola University Chicago departed for the Missouri Valley Conference.

“I don’t know a lot about Oakland,” Barnes said. “They’re new to the league. I know that they have a very good point guard, a couple of very solid forwards, and they’ve been scoring a lot, too.”

Oakland (7-10, 2-2) ranks fifth in the conference with 68.8 points per game, last in field goal percentage (38.2) and third in scoring defense (68.4 points per game).

Barnes added that it’s nice to have a full week to prepare for the Golden Grizzlies, even though YSU has not lost since Jan. 4.

“Heidi [Schlegel has] been playing a ton of minutes,” Barnes said. “Liz has been playing a ton of minutes. Jenna’s been playing a ton of minutes. Melissa [Thompson] needs to rest her knee up, so it’s a nice little break.”

The Golden Grizzlies will play at Cleveland State on Thursday before coming to Youngstown.

The Penguins have not lost to a conference foe since March 15, when Loyola defeated them, 72-45, in the Horizon League Tournament. A current conference opponent has not defeated YSU since March 7 when the University of Detroit Mercy beat the Penguins.

“You want to keep playing when you’re winning, but not necessarily when you have some bumps and bruises,” Barnes said. “Rest will be good.”

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