YOUNGSTOWN — All season long, Youngstown State has played with the proverbial chip on its shoulder. Slated seventh in the Horizon League’s preseason poll, the Penguins felt undervalued.
Now, they stand just three games from the NCAA Tournament as they begin their Horizon League Tournament campaign as the No. 2 seed.
Their first tourney matchup is tonight as YSU welcomes No. 7 Oakland to the Beeghly Center (7 p.m., ESPN+, 570 AM WKBN).
“Ultimately, it’s just how you execute on the court, how well you play that night,” YSU coach John Barnes said Tuesday ahead of learning who YSU’s opponent would be as the Horizon League reseeds after each round. “(It’s about) going out and giving it your best effort, and hopefully you’re able to score one more point than your opponent.”
Points were hard to come by the last time the Penguins (24-5) and Golden Grizzlies (14-14) met, a 56-52 Oakland victory at Beeghly on Jan. 30. In that loss, YSU had its worst performance of the season from 3-point range, shooting a miserable 5-of-29 (17.2 percent). The Penguins topped OU in their initial encounter on Nov. 18, 79-68.
Dragging teams into rock fights has been Oakland’s best bet of late. In each of the Golden Grizzlies’ last four wins since topping YSU, they’ve held their opponents to 54 points or less. In three of those victories, OU kept its opponent under 50 points (Wright State twice and UIC once).
In fact, Oakland is 6-14 when allowing more than 55 points in a game, but 8-0 when keeping opponents under that threshold.
After that loss to OU, Barnes assessed, “(Oakland is) quick, and they can pressure, and we missed a ton of open shots.”
Oakland enters having won three of its last four, including a 54-45 defensive victory over Wright State on Tuesday in the opening round of the league tournament.
However, OU may be playing without All-Horizon League Third Team selection Kahlaijah Dean, who’s missed the Grizzlies’ last three games. Her last appearance was Feb. 19 against Purdue Fort Wayne. That could be significant, as she leads OU in scoring at 15.3 points per game.
Behind her, Breanne Beatty scores 9.5 per game and leads the team with 4.8 rebounds.
Meanwhile, the Penguins, who are 2-0 against Oakland all-time in the Horizon League tourney, enter off a first-round bye. YSU took home a share of the Horizon League’s regular-season title last week after topping UIC 61-54 in Chicago.
Lilly Ritz paces YSU with 16.8 points and 9.6 rebounds per contest, while Chelsea Olson is chipping in 11 points, 6.1 rebounds and a league-high 4.7 assists per game. Malia Magestro is scoring 10 per game.
Barnes said the Penguins had been stressing the little details in practice leading into the game.
“We’re focused on just doing a little detail work. We’re not overdoing it by any means,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve played all these teams at least twice … so we have a good idea of what they’re doing, and they know us pretty well.”
And, of course, with each team now just three wins away from the dance, Barnes figures the Penguins will get everybody’s best shot the rest of the way.
“The slates are clean, and everybody’s got a chance,” Barnes said. “They only have to win three games to go to the NCAA Tournament, to win a (Horizon League) championship. So the teams that maybe haven’t been in a position record-wise to win a regular-season championship have renewed life, renewed energy, because they only have to win three games now. You get hot and win three games, you’re going to the NCAA Tournament and you have a championship trophy and ring and cut down the nets and all that. So it’s definitely a new season for everyone.”