Defensive play stressed on women’s team

YOUNGSTOWN — Players were paired off, two-by-two, one boxing out the other. The basketball lay in front of them as the other player tried to get the ball.

Sometimes it worked. Other times it didn’t.

The action looked more like the players were using wrestling moves to jockey for position.

Youngstown State women’s basketball coach John Barnes is stressing defensive fundamentals heading into the team’s first practice on Oct. 1.

The Penguins gave up 74.3 points per game last season, about 15 above the team’s comfort zone when they had around 20 wins a season.

Barnes wants this team to get back to that eventually.

“The biggest thing is we have a lot of effort and enthusiasm and energy,” he said. “We have a long way to go in terms of the fundamentals of our defense that we’re trying today, especially with a lot of newcomers. We’re learning a lot. The team is coming in at full speed and giving 100 percent. That’s all we can ask for at this point going into our first practice.”

Three starters were out last season. Plenty of young players saw more time than normal. It snowballed into a 9-21 season.

It left senior Indiya Benjamin to run the point and as one of the only returning players, along with junior Alison Smolinski. Smolinski (12.5) and Benjamin (11.6) were the leading scorers last season. Sophomore Mary Dunn returns at 11.3 points. No one averaged more than 4.3 rebounds per game.

Lordstown native and 6-foot-1 forward Sarah Cash started one game and was given a redshirt, along with Hickory (Pa.) standout Nikki Arbanas, who suffered an ACL tear the first day of practice. Both are redshirt juniors.

YSU needs that leadership going forward. Eight of the 16 players on the roster are either freshmen or sophomores.

“I think leadership more than anything else is huge, having Nikki back and Sarah in there,” Barnes said. “Indiya has stepped up quite a bit as a leader.”

Arbanas has not been cleared for 5-on-5 play, but is close. Barnes added the team is being careful with Cash as well, coming off her knee issues from last season.

Sophomore forward Natalie Myers had a broken bone in her hand, but she’s getting back as well.

“I would love for us to be at full health by the first game,” Barnes said.

Barnes said getting better defensively is vital to the success of this program. The underclassmen need to understand this point.

“We make it a priority every single day,” he said. “We meet before and talk about what we want to get done today. A lot of it has to do with our defense, getting stops and getting better fundamentally and all the little things. Make it know to them that it’s a priority. Make them understand that in order to get on the floor they’re going to have to do a good job on that end.”

It starts with communication, even when you’re tired in the fourth quarter.

“That’s one of our weak points not only in terms of this year, but in the past,” Barnes said. “We’re talking about that and working on being better communicators every day. We did a drill (Tuesday) where it was very fatiguing. When you’re fatigued, can you keep doing the little things and communicating, the fundamentals of your defense? It was a great learning for us.”

It’s about getting the fundamentals in as YSU progresses to its scrimmage and exhibition games, heading toward the opener Nov. 10 at Pittsburgh.

“Are we going to be ready for our first scrimmage or exhibition game? No,” Barnes said. “It’s going to take midseason before everything is put in, you have all the fundamentals in and you hope you’re in a good spot. Really you want to be playing your best basketball at the end of the year. I think with a lot of younger players and a lot of younger players playing a lot of minutes this year, it’s going to take a little longer than usual.”

For now, YSU goes back to working on its fundamentals.