YSU needs to rekindle earlier mojo

Three consecutive losses. Wright State, Northern Kentucky and Cleveland State. Sound familiar? It should.

The Youngstown State men’s basketball team was losers of three straight before heading to Oakland (Mich.) University for a Jan. 30 regular season game on the Rochester, Michigan campus.

How did this team get from the doldrums of the Horizon League basement to being part of the top eight and qualifying for this year’s tournament?

YSU (12-19) begins the Horizon League Tournament on Wednesday as a six seed at the third-seeded Golden Grizzlies (15-16), starting at 7 p.m., at the O’Rena.

There were a couple of factors heading into that Thursday night matchup back in January. One was the team starting to play much better defense. It limited teams to 77 points or less during a seven-game stretch, including the loss at Cleveland State on Jan. 26. After that loss, YSU rattled off six straight wins.

Two, there was a sense of urgency by all. Sophomore Naz Bohannon led the charge. Not a surprise. The Lorain native has been a born leader before he set foot on the YSU campus. The 6-foot-6 sophomore has been a stable force on a Penguins team trying to build culture each and every day for the first two seasons of YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun’s tenure. His upbeat attitude started to spread like wildfire the week leading up to the Oakland game. You could see the relaxed attitude this team had in the shoot-around the day before the game, but they were focused when needed.

The third and final part was the closure. Before this point, and what YSU struggled with on Saturday in the overtime loss at Cleveland State, was second-half hiccups. The Penguins squandered a 12-point lead against the Vikings. YSU had lulls or other mishaps in the final 20 minutes it could not overcome prior to the Oakland game. Against the Golden Grizzlies, YSU stayed with them, but it didn’t seem as if this Golden Grizzlies team would pull away. There was an “it” factor for the Penguins. The last 4 minutes wasn’t be decided by one or two errant plays down the stretch.

Freshman Darius Quisenberry, who is one of the league’s top players, made some clutch shots by driving or making free throws. Michael Akuchie and John Sally Jr. came off the bench for some much-needed assistance to a previously ailing YSU team.

Confidence was up that entire road trip. It seemed bleak against Detroit a couple days later, but this Penguins team would not let the past 10-plus losses inside Calihan Hall define them. It was about sticking to the game plan — and having Devin Morgan hit a last-second, game-winning 3.

Bohannon came out of the locker room against Detroit and told his team the whole way down to the playing surface they would not lose this game.

Somehow, YSU has to believe in themselves once again.

There’s a white, rectangle shaped piece of wood that has the words, “Great things come to those who believe” in black lettering that sits on my dresser at home. My wife, Michele, gave that to me for Valentine’s Day.

Wednesday, the Penguins will try to reclaim that thought process.