No flash, just grit for YSU women


John Barnes sat at the weekly news conference Monday at Youngstown State, talking about his women’s basketball team.

There’s a lot to talk about.

One is freshman McKenah Peters winning Horizon League Freshman of the Week.

She’s feisty player and timely shooter who has seen a lot of time in place of the injured Alison Smolinski, whose foot has healed, allowing the junior to come off the bench.

Likely Horizon League Freshman of the Year Chelsea Olson, who has won the weekly honor four times, has shown YSU much needed depth.

Barnes’ team has won nine of its last 11 games, secured a fifth seed and plays fourth-seeded Milwaukee on Sunday at 2:30 p.m., in Detroit at the Horizon League Tournament.

It’s Motor City Madness.

That’s a good analogy for the recent series between these two teams, games decided by five or fewer points.

It took overtime in Youngstown and a last-second tip-in in Milwaukee for both teams to post wins. It was that tight, almost as tightlipped as most of the women’s answers are in interviews.

Straightforward. That’s what you’ll get from Barnes and his players during most interviews, with the occasional quip.

It’s also what you’ll see on the floor from this hardworking team.

YSU men’s coach Jerrod Calhoun preaches a culture of grit, something he’ll definitely cultivate in the offseason heading into year two. It’ll happen through exhaustive training and recruiting, more emphasis on the latter of the two.

You can understand why the Penguins men’s coach is a fan of what coach Barnes and his team are doing.

This women’s team has been playing better defense, holding opponents to less than 70 points in nine of its last 11 games.

No better example was the three-and-a-half quarters of basketball YSU played against Cleveland State on Saturday, holding the Vikings to 69 points. CSU went on a 14-1 run to end the game.

“We’re a team that’s not going to beat anyone without playing really hard, well,” Barnes said.

YSU (15-14) hasn’t had a streak like this since the Penguins won the 1998 Mid-Continent Conference Championship, a team that was honored at halftime of Saturday’s game. This is the gold standard of all YSU women’s teams – one that won an NCAA Tournament game.

That has been Barnes’ goal since day one. The fifth-year coach wants to guide this team back to the NCAAs. The last time YSU was there was the 1999-2000 season where the Penguins took a first-round exit at Penn State.

This Penguins team isn’t looking past Sunday and a third time against Milwaukee. That’s their sole focus. This coaching staff is making sure that happens.

This YSU team is taking care of the fundamentals. Look at the Penguins constantly boxing out. They dive on the floor, scrap for the basketball.

Those were things honed in during the summer. I remember seeing a drill where two players were in a circle, surrounded by teammates, going for loose basketball. It seemed like the wrestling mats should’ve been laid out instead. That was some hardcore training, one that paid off this season — one that didn’t initially go as envisioned for a team picked eighth in the preseason standings.

Smolinski broke her foot on Dec. 20 and just started to get back into game action. Getting her to add to this roll by Sunday is a big boost.

So is the recent play of Nikki Arbanas. She had a season-high 24 points last Saturday. Senior guard Indiya Benjamin had a double-double of points and assists. It was just two seasons ago when this team had 20-plus victories and went on run to the semifinals in the Women’s Basketball Invitational.

Arbanas had an ACL injury to end the 2016-17 season, while post Sarah Cash succumbed to knee problems herself. The two were redshirted. Another starter in Kelsea Newman was gone due to another ACL injury in the team’s opener.

You can understand why Barnes rolls his eyes when someone mentions an injury. You would too.

Well, there’s another one. Senior Kelley Wright had her left arm in a sling after a rough and tumble Cleveland State player pounced on her in the second half of Sunday’s game. Barnes said during Monday’s news conference Wright would see the doctor on Wednesday to have it further evaluated.

It must have been a helluva hit because Wright is one of YSU’s toughest players and defenders. Her intangibles mean a heckuva lot to this team, and they will be sorely missed if she can’t play Sunday.

Despite that, YSU has to win three games to capture the team’s first league title since 2000 and first-ever Horizon League title. It would be the team’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since then.

No flash, just hard work for this Penguins team. That’s how they’ve won nine out of their last 11.