’Guins fall to Penn State in season opener
YSU had fast and hot start but Nittany Lions pulled away late in 75-59 victory
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It was a glimpse of where Youngstown State could be as its roster begins to gel, while also a reminder of where the Penguins currently stand as the 2021-2022 season begins.
Despite a blistering start from the field and a second-half run that brought the game to a two-score differential, YSU fell in its season opener at Penn State on Wednesday night, 75-59.
“This was a good experience. I look at this as a positive; I really do,” Penguin head coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “It’s not like football. We get 31 games.”
Indeed, there were some things to like for YSU, including a quick start. The Penguins (0-1) nabbed a 21-17 lead midway through the first half thanks to a blistering first 10 minutes from the field, as YSU sank 9 of its first 11 shots.
Garrett Covington led the charge, sinking YSU’s first two buckets to draw the score to 5-5. From there, the teams traded baskets until a Dallion Johnson trey put PSU (1-0) up 15-12 with 13:41 left in the first half.
YSU responded with a 9-2 run, fueled by a pair of buckets from Michael Akuchie, as well as a layup by Covington and a triple from Chris Shelton with 10:58 to play before intermission.
From there, however, the Penguins went cold, and the Nittany Lions came roaring back. PSU ended the first half on an 18-5 run, which included a 9-0 spurt at one point. During that time, YSU hit just two of its next 13 attempts as Penn State surged to a 35-26 advantage at halftime.
Of that subsequent drought after the hot start, fifth-year senior Garrett Covington assessed, “Just the natural flow of the game. You start out hot, but it’s about staying consistent throughout the game. I think that’s something I’ve struggled with personally throughout my college career, and just something that I need to work on to help us push through that next level.”
That Penn State surge spilled into the second half, as the Nittany Lions began the second half on a 10-4 run and eventually ballooned their lead to 48-32.
As Penn State reached that apex, though, Michael Akuchie and Chris Shelton began to heat up for YSU. Shelton hit back-to-back triples, and then Akuchie scored 11 of his team-high 22 points over the next 3:54 to draw YSU to within eight. Then, after a pair of Covington free throws, the Penguins found themselves down just six, 59-53, with 7:12 to go.
Akuchie also nabbed 10 rebounds to finish with a double-double. Covington scored 11 points, while Shelton’s three treys put him at 9. Shemar Rathan-Mayes scored 10.
“(Akuchie is) a fifth-year senior, him and Garrett. You have to rely on those guys, and they have to carry you in those situations,” Calhoun said. “He was open, and we want him to shoot. He’s a little bit of an inside-outside guy. He was frustrated in the first half, and we told our guy at halftime we have to have better possessions, and if you’re open, you have to make the shot.”
But just as it was in the first half, YSU’s offense cooled back off, and Penn State flexed its muscle again to pull away for its 16-point win and first under first-year head coach Micah Shrewsberry.
After Covington’s trip to the stripe, the Nittany Lions landed a haymaker 10-0 run to put the game away for good.
Of YSU’s offensive inconsistency, Calhoun said, “I think it’s probably a little bit of both (settling for jump shots and not getting open looks). We have one of the newest teams in the Horizon League. … I think during those tough stretches, we just haven’t played with each other enough.”
The Penguins did themselves no favors inside the paint and on the glass, either. PSU outscored Youngstown State inside, 44-18, and also outrebounded the Penguins 43-25. Penn State’s 12 offensive rebounds yielded 12 second-chance points.
“I think we got absolutely manhandled on the glass,” Calhoun said. “You look at the different size. They’re a Big Ten team; we’re in the Horizon. We have to do a better job rebounding the ball. We got outrebounded by almost 20, and I think it shows you we haven’t played enough with one another.”
The Penguins also played without sophomore guard Daniel Ogoro, who was out with a sprained ankle.
Penn State forward John Harrar was the game’s leading rebounder with 14 boards, and he also added 16 points for Penn State. Slashing guard Sam Sessoms scored 17 for PSU, including a stretch of four consecutive layups, each in response to Akuchie’s hot streak, courtesy of hard drives to the basket. Seth Lundy led all scorers with 23 points.
YSU next visits Southeast Missouri State on Saturday night. The Redhawks are fresh off a 99-94 upset of Missouri State.
“I just told the guys we have one of the newest teams, so we can do one of two things. We can pout and point the finger, or we can look ourselves in the mirror, watch the tape and realize this is going to be a long journey,” Calhoun said. “… We have so many new guys, and the environment (at Penn State) was good. Their student section was good, band was good. We’ll get a lot out of this, but we’re playing a SEMO team that just won a buy-game against Missouri State, so they’re sky high and they’re a good team.”