Penguins in position to make history

YOUNGSTOWN — The shine off the Beeghly Center floor glows with the LED lights from high above illuminating down on the 94-by-50 foot floor. It brought a glow to the empty surface and building.

The white and red cushioned folding chairs signifying each bench lay empty, as well as the red plastic chairback seats behind. They’re pushed back on the opposite side for the midnight cleaning crew.

It’s 11:30 p.m. Thursday night. About two hours earlier, there was a decent crowd filling certain parts of this building, which has stood on the Youngstown State University campus since the early 1970s.

The Penguins’ football team sat in the upper general admission seating behind the south basket. Their catcalls of Wright State in the pregame introductions and constant cheering from this group gave the basketball Penguins a much-needed boost during play. It seemed like a playoff atmosphere. In essence, it was.

YSU is coming off its best win in years, a domination of the Horizon League’s best team — Wright State — 88-70.

Darius Quisenberry had that same view coming off a long, arduous road trip to Detroit Mercy and Oakland. One success with the Titans. The other was a horrific loss at Oakland. He knew he had to do more for his team, not just sit idly by again.

It’s Monday morning. Quisenberry, a 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard, was busy taking shots, honing his craft — the art of basketball. Lifting weights, working toward a goal. He made his way into the men’s basketball office on the southeast part of the Beeghly Center. Quisenberry has done more before 9 a.m. than most people do all day.

I see Quisenberry come out of the film room where they were busy preparing for Thursday’s game. It was Tuesday afternoon and I was on my laptop, sifting through notes of a recent news conference.

The Springfield, Ohio, native was upbeat, more so than usual. I’ve seen this before. I ask if his parents are coming to these two home games. Richard and Andrea usually do. They’re two of the team’s biggest fans, and can be seen on most road trips. The YSU sophomore guard smiles and said they were.

Darius’ eyes were focused and couldn’t hide his upbeat nature. Wright State would find out what that meant Thursday — 41 points. It’s a new career high for one of the Horizon League’s best players — looking like one of the best the Indianapolis-based league has to offer. Remember that league voters on your postseason award ballots.

YSU’s Assistant Director of Athletics Communications Jamie Hall lists in his game notes that YSU is 7-1 when Quisenberry scores at least 20 points.

I tweeted out that the sophomore guard looked like YSU legend Kendrick Perry in the first half when he scored 25 points. The animation that Quisenberry showed was spectacular and warranted. He was the feature attraction in Thursday’s program-defining win.

For now, he is a cross between Perry and former YSU guard Cameron Morse. With Morse, you never knew how many points he had until you looked up at the scoreboard. Simple, unassuming, Morse had a way a of lulling the opposition to sleep in scoring his 40-plus points.

This is just the beginning for Quisenberry. He is the focal point on this team. This is his Penguins team. Not just Thursday, but he needs to take ownership of this team every night it hits the floor. He will be the best guard YSU has seen in this program by the time he’s played that last game for the Penguins.

Ethan Faulkner, a former Northern Kentucky player who had a penchant for defensive play, hasn’t lost that passion. He’s shared it with his new team — YSU. The first-year Penguins assistant coach has revamped this once-porous defense into a feared force in the 10-team Horizon League.

Effort, execution and 70 or fewer points. YSU is 11-1 when holding a team to 70 or fewer points, the only exception the 66-64 loss in early December at Western Michigan. The Penguins held Wright State, the Horizon League’s highest scoring team at around 84 points in league games, to 70 on Thursday.

Faulkner devised a plan to fluster the odds-on favorite to win player of the year in the Horizon League, 6-8, 260-pound Loudon Love. He averages more than 17 points and 10 rebounds per game. Once the big man gets in the paint, he’s impossible to stop.

The Penguins began putting bodies on Love, flustering him as Michael Akuchie, Jamir Thomas and Naz Bohannon kept him out of the lane as much as possible. He still had a team-high 17 points, but only four rebounds.

Thomas, who had double-figure rebounds the last time against Wright State, kept the Raiders off the boards, so much that it stunned YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun in the post-game news conference.

WSU coach Scott Nagy, who was seeking his 500th career win, was flustered by the amount a physicality YSU delivered Thursday. It’s how these Penguins are successful, denying access to driving toward the hoop. It’s the reason why YSU outrebounded the Raiders 43-24, including 14 offensive rebounds to give the Penguins 13 second-chance points. The Penguins are fifth in the nation with about 14 offensive rebounds per game.

Bohannon, who plays more like a versatile small forward at 6-6 with the way he moves in transition and starts the Penguins’ offense, had 16 points and 14 rebounds — his seventh double-double this season. It’s the double-double YSU needs from the Lorain native each and every game. Effort is always given by Bohannon.

Bill Wampler, who has an amazing mid-range jumper for the Raiders, along with Tanner Holden, reached double figures on Thursday. Cole Gentry was held to five points, but Jordan Ash got to double figures.

Wright State had to work for the 26-of-60 from the floor as the Raiders were bumped and contested at every turn Thursday. YSU made them work for a majority of their points.

Effort and execution, the Penguins had plenty of it, the closest thing YSU has had to a complete 40-minute effort in quite a while and something YSU needs to do going forward.

The Penguins won’t see Quisenberry score 40-plus points each night, but him taking ownership of this offense is a must.

YSU must be as effective today on defense against a guard-oriented Northern Kentucky team, starting at 2 p.m. The Penguins cannot let the Norse camp out around the 3-point line or drive the lane early and often.

The Penguins have a shot at the No. 2 seed in the upcoming Horizon League tournament, but they would need to win today, at Green Bay and at Milwaukee next week, and also have Northern Kentucky lose next week at home against Wright State. The two seed would mean a double bye to the semifinals of the tournament in Indianapolis. That would put the Penguins two wins away from an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.

Playing like the way they did Thursday against Wright State gives the Penguins as good a shot as anyone in the Horizon League of being the league’s representative in the NCAA Tournament. That is solely dependent on how the Penguins play, starting today.


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