YOUNGSTOWN - Despite a postseason absence dating back to the 1999-2000 season, the Youngstown State women's basketball team played its opening round Women's National Invitation Tournament game against Indiana State as if the concept was second nature.
Relying on physicality, toughness and defense, the Penguins battled to a 63-51 first-round win over the visiting Sycamores.
It was the kind of win coach Bob Boldon believes is becoming emblematic of the way his team plays, especially in front of the home crowd. The Penguins are now 23-9 on the season, and Thursday night's victory set a record for home wins in a season at 14.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Youngstown State’s Shar’Rae Davis tries to drive past Indiana State’s Natasha Zurek on Thursday.
"The community here loves Youngstown State," Boldon explained. "We want to give the home crowd something to be excited about. It isn't just about winning for us, but how we play the game, too."
The win also marks YSU's first tournament win since the 1997-98 season, this from a senior class who, as freshmen, endured an 0-30 mark in 2009-10, followed by records of 6-24 and 10-20 the next two seasons.
"We're very thrilled and very excited to be playing," sophomore Heidi Schlegel said. "It's exciting being part of this turnaround."
Horizon League Player of the Year Brandi Brown echoed her teammates sentiment and channeled Charles Dickens' "A Tale of Two Cities" to metaphorically establish the obvious shift from her underclassmen career as a Penguin to the success of her senior season.
"It was the best of times and it was the worst of times," she said.
The Penguins did not, however, play like they're just happy to be in the postseason. YSU had five players finish in double figures as Brown finished with 16 points, Schlegel and Shar'Rae Davis each added 12, and Karen Flagg and Liz Hornberger both posted an even ten.
The first half was played at a grinding pace. The two teams battled, though not in scoring. Hornberger finally brought the Beeghly Center crowd to its feet with consecutive 3-pointers from well beyond the arc, giving the Penguins their first lead at 15-13. The first trey drew gasps as Hornberger pulled up from the freshly applied Women's NIT emblem. Indiana State was quickly forced to get out of its zone defense.
The game quickly returned to its bruising pace. The teams exchanged leads multiple times until a late-half Penguin rally, capped by a Schlegel triple with a minute to play, gave YSU a 29-23 halftime advantage.
Ahead just 40-35 in the middle of the second half, the Penguins survived a scare when Hornberger went down with an apparent ankle injury, sidelining the junior guard for a stretch of time.
"I knew she (Hornberger) was going to be back," Shlegel said. "She's Liz. She hurts her ankles all the time, but she's tough."
During that same stretch, however, the Sycamores had a setback of their own. Racheal Mahan, second on Indiana State's team in scoring (13.4 points per game), fouled out with 10 minutes still remaining in the contest.
Slowly but surely, the Penguins were able to build a more comfortable lead. A baseline runner by Brown, followed by a jumper from Flagg with just over two minutes to go extended the advantage to 56-47. The Penguins made their free throws to close out the game.
Indiana State (18-13) was held to just 32 percent shooting on the night.
YSU now advances to play at Toledo this Saturday at 2 p.m. The Penguins were 3-0 on the regular season against Mid-American Conference opponents, scoring wins over Akron, Buffalo, and Miami (OH). As a conference, the Horizon League boasted a 16-7 advantage of the MAC this season. Bolden, however, believes Toledo to be the best team the Penguins have faced this season.
"They're really good," he said. "This will be a great challenge for us."