YSU’s 2000-01 season was one to remember

YOUNGSTOWN — Stephen Flores talked about that memorable season and how it all took shape.

It sounded like it happened a year or two ago, not almost two decades.

That 2000-01 season was the perfect storm for the Youngstown State University men’s basketball team, which went 19-11.

Coach John Robic, now an assistant at the University of Kentucky, came to YSU from the University of Massachusetts where he and his lifelong friend John Calipari built the Minutemen into an eventual Final Four team in 1996. He followed Calipari to Memphis and Kentucky after leaving YSU in 2005.

YSU had a handful of seniors, which if you see most successful NCAA Tournament teams, that leadership was essential in the prowess of mid-major teams.

The Penguins began with winning four of their first five games, which would be the program’s last season in the Mid-Continent Conference.

They went into December with two straight victories over now mid-major power Northern Iowa and staying within single figures of nationally-ranked Cincinnati in a Puerto Rico Tournament. YSU was manhandled against the Bearcats the year before.

On a cold January night in the plains of northwest Indiana, YSU traveled to rival Valparaiso with first place on the line in the Mid-Con. The Penguins came away with a loss, but there wasn’t many of those that season. This team wouldn’t allow it.

The crowds averaged about 3,000 at the Beeghly Center.

Flores and his wife, former YSU standout women’s basketball player Jen Perugini, attend Penguin basketball games with their children, supporting their alma mater.

“That year was probably my most enjoyable year of playing basketball,” said Flores, who teaches and coaches in the Youngstown City School System. “On the court, off the court, we had a group of guys that really got along. We hung out together and that translated on how we played on the court. It helped us overcome adversity, whether we’re having a bad game to come back and win. That was a fun season. We had real nice crowds, a lot of community support.

“That was a fun season to be a part of.”

The pinnacle was an early February game, a rematch against Valparaiso. Same result as the first time, but first place was once again on the line as more than 6,200 people packed the Beeghly Center, vaulting the fledgling mid-major atmosphere into a major-level feeling that made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when the home crowd was in unison.

Steubenville native Brian Radakovich, who was on a recruiting visit that night, saw the atmosphere and was convinced YSU was his home for the next couple of seasons.

“This place was incredible,” he said. “I could not wait to come and play after I saw that crowd.”

Robic was seen as a fiery coach, even booting the side of the scorer’s table on occasion and stomping his black dress shoes on the playing surface, a sound that echoed throughout the building. Which if you see Calipari during a game, it’s not hard to see where the western Pennsylvania natives get their passion for the game.

That’s what onlookers saw, but there was another side to Robic, one the players saw. It was a side I saw as a reporter, a coach who was vacationing with his family in Massachusetts, spending a couple of minutes talking to a young scribe over the phone.

Robic was passionate about his players, even having them over to the house for cookouts. It was about team unity.

“One, he cared about you off he court, too,” said Ryan Patton, who was one of the team’s leading scorers and point guard that season. “You could always go up to him. If there was something going on, he was always open to talk and make sure everything is good with you.

“He was a big part of us bonding and it leads to success. It all started with him.”

Patton lives in Cleveland and is engaged to be married. He recently opened a facility in North Royalton for individual basketball lesson camps and start AAU teams.

“I enjoy being in the gym and I love to do it,” he said. “It keeps me somewhat sane.”

That camaraderie is what kept the 00-01 team as one of the best in Mid-Con that season.

“It was a blast,” Patton said. “Everybody knew who they were. Everybody liked each other, which is a big thing. When you like each other and are happy for each other’s success, that turns into a very good season.”

That season ended way too soon, a Sunday night in Fort Wayne, Ind., a loss to Oral Roberts in a first-round Mid-Con matchup. This YSU team seemed destined for a third chance at Valparaiso and a spot in the title game with a NCAA Tournament berth on the line.

It wasn’t meant to be, but that loss will never take away what that team accomplished and the excitement of that 00-01 season.

“It wasn’t that ending we wanted that year,” Flores said. “We thought we could do more, but that’s the way basketball is. Sometimes the best teams don’t always win. I don’t remember those type of things. I remember all the good times and the success that we did have.”