Early defeats helped Penguins learn to win

YOUNGSTOWN — They knew they were a step too slow. The press was backfiring, but this team knew it was getting close and felt an upset in the making in the midst of the Rocky Mountain region.

Utah State is a staple in the NCAA Tournament and had a younger, but seasoned team. Youngstown State, a team trying to shed a losing stigma and develop into an eventual winner, held a lead in Logan, Utah.

The Aggies eventually pulled away, but the Youngstown State men’s basketball team learned something valuable that mid-December night, beginning to make a transformation that wasn’t that far away.

Culture changes are not easy. It takes time.

YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun saw the swagger in his team that night, knowing this Penguins team was close to beating one of the nation’s best mid-major teams, a moniker YSU hopes to wear proudly some day.

It was the attitude Calhoun’s teams had at Fairmont State. He’s seen it at West Virginia, and even at Walsh. It was winning.

Things are starting to come together for a YSU team which had two wins — both against NCAA Division III teams — and rode a nine-game losing streak into Horizon League play.

YSU is now 3-0 in the Horizon League, a half-game back of Wright State and Northern Kentucky, both 4-0 in the conference. Those two teams both have double-figure wins. Not the Penguins, they are 5-11.

YSU won a buzzer-beater at Cleveland State last week, then at home on Thursday the Penguins dominated Milwaukee early and held off the Panthers. On Saturday, YSU came from behind against an up-tempo Green Bay team to put away the Phoenix in the second half.

“We should be walking around with a little swagger,” Calhoun said. “We should be excited to be in first place in a conference after three games.

“We need to develop a student section. That’s what this place needs.”

YSU freshman guard Garrett Covington credits the coaching staff for making adjustments.

“The preparation we’ve had in conference play has been unbelievable,” he said.

Calhoun said his teams are playing with the proverbial chip on their shoulders, representing the city of Youngstown, showing grit and toughness.

He credited the YSU crowd for showing up Thursday and Saturday, braving the Arctic conditions and being a support line this Penguins team could thrive off of during the two-game homestand.

The YSU bench is getting better, there are more players to rely on game after game. However, the press has subsided. Calhoun realizes he cannot play constant uptempo until his team has another recruiting class in here.

Right now, you’ll see a team with a lockdown half-court defense, which will speed opponents in the the press and share the basketball. YSU is 3-0 in league play, mainly because of the Penguins have a positive assist to turnover ratio. This team also has crashed the boards in the recent 3-0 stretch.

Now, YSU travels to league favorite Oakland on Wednesday to start a three-game road trip.

Junior forward Tyree Robinson said the Penguins can’t just rest on a 3-0 start in league play.

“We’ve got more games to come, so we’ve got to lock in,” Robinson said.

He said he’s happy, as well as the program. He’s sure the fans and city of Youngstown are proud of them, too.

For that to happen, YSU had to find its true path. It might not be the one the Penguins initially envisioned, but it’s the one which led to this recent success.

“You’ve got to take a lot of the losses to understand a win. We did,” Robinson said.