By Marc Weems
The Youngstown State University Men’s Basketball team has struggled to find true consistency, but if the last four games are an indication, things are getting better.
The Penguins (6-13, 2-4 Horizon League) went 2-2 on their recent four-game road trip with both losses being of 15 or less points.
YSU started the road trip with a tough loss to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. It was a 99-93 overtime loss. It was turnovers that killed them with 16 to the Phoenix’s nine.
In the second game, they dominated the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for a 76-51 win. It was just their second true road win all year. YSU heavily outrebounded Milwaukee (45 to 32) and had more assists (20 to 10).
After a tough 78-63 loss at the hands of the University of Illinois-Chicago Flames, YSU bounced back with an 82-76 win over Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
“I thought it was an important game. You know, I didn’t think that we played very well on Thursday [against UIC],” YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “I was looking to see what type of response we would get on Saturday [against IUPUI]. I thought we were really hungry for a win. I thought our sense of urgency was really, really good.”
“In the end, we got a much-needed victory,” he added. “We wanted our guys to get that thing out. There’s a lot of plays in that game [against IUPUI] that we can certainly learn from.”
Freshman guard Jelani Simmons has started the last six games for the Penguins and has been a key piece to success. He has averaged 10.6 points per game on 52 percent shooting and 45 percent from 3-point range. He is also averaging 3.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.5 blocks in those six games.
Simmons finished with a career-high 18 points in the loss to the Flames. The team then finished the trip with a great win over IUPUI that taught them a lot.
“We’re gonna play hungry every game,” Simmons said on the team’s will to win. “We kind of want it but we’re not working hard enough to get it.”
Darius Quisenberry finished with a game-high 22 points in their win to pace the Penguins. Garrett Covington contributed with 15 points, while Michael Akuchie had 11 points, six rebounds and an assist off the bench.
The focus for the Penguins now is the task ahead of them.
First, it’s a matchup against Wright State University (8-10, 2-3 HL). The Raiders sit just a half game ahead of the Penguins.
Last year, YSU lost both games to the Raiders by scores of 77-67 on the road and 83-57 at home.
The Raiders were the Horizon League’s only NCAA tournament representative after winning the league tournament.
“I think we need to find a way to win inside the Beeghley Center,” Calhoun said. “We have yet to beat a Division I in our building. We’ve lost about four games by about six or seven possessions. We certainly could be 4-0, but we’re not. We have to find a way to be a team that is very, very hard to play at home.”
The Penguins are 2-4 at home this season with both wins against Division III opponents. YSU has lost those four games by a combined 25 points, which shows how close they are.
The Penguins, despite just six wins so far, are on pace to win 10 games. That would mark a two-win improvement over last year.
After Wright State on Thursday, the Penguins host Northern Kentucky University on Saturday in a game that was moved due to weather from 6 p.m. to 1 p.m. that day.
Northern Kentucky (14-4, 4-1) made last year NIT and made the NCAA tournament the year before that.
“Obviously a much, much anticipated week,” Calhoun said of the important games at home. “Hopefully, our fans show up and give us that extra boost. We are certainly going to need it.”
He also said that the team fully understands the challenge that both of these teams give them.
YSU hosts Wright State on Thursday at 7 p.m. and Northern Kentucky on Saturday at 1 p.m.