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Recalling a packed Beeghly Center

YOUNGSTOWN — Feb. 10, 2001.

The date was significant as Youngstown State University and Valparaiso were vying for first place in the former Mid-Continent Conference.

YSU revealed a month later its exit strategy to the Horizon League, a newly formed conglomeration with teams like current rival Cleveland State, Butler and Wright State. Teams like Valparaiso, Oakland and Northern Kentucky soon followed to the Horizon.

The YSU-Valparaiso matchup drew the interest of area fans back then as the teams sought supremacy in the MCC. The Penguins were looking to tie the Crusaders, the elite team of the MCC, for first place.

More than 6,200 fans crowded into the Beeghly Center that day. Seats were filled, from the red plastic chairbacks to the wooden benches behind both baskets to the high-rise bleachers on the second level of the Beeghly Center. Fans were anxious to see what YSU could do against an elite team.

The Penguins only trailed by three at the half as Rafael Cruz, TeJay Anderson (arguably the best MCC freshman that season), 3-point specialist Craig Haese, and Desmond Harrison all scored in double figures that game.

Harrison, a 6-foot-5 undersized post, had a double-double with 12 rebounds.

The fans were into the game and the echoes of cheers were deafening, so much that the hair stood up on the back of my neck at the media table when the 6,200-plus were in full unison. At times, it felt like high-major basketball. It’s hard to forget those moments almost 20 years later.

The result wasn’t what the fans came to see as Valparaiso surged ahead in the second half for an 82-68 win with 38 free-throw attempts — 17 more attempts than a YSU team that went 19-11 that season.

Valparaiso’s Eastern European block of players such as Lubos Barton (6-7, 230 pounds), Raitis Grafs (6-9, 238) and Milo Stovall (6-4, 204) dominated the Penguins that day.

Ryan Patton, Andrew Hannan, Dave Brown and Stephen Flores were instrumental in that magical season for the Penguins, one that ended too short — a Sunday night in Fort Wayne, Indiana, against an Oral Roberts team that YSU beat twice that season. Still hard to fathom to this day.

It didn’t take away from the fun of watching a senior-laden team that should have made the MCC tournament final that season to get one more shot at Valpo, a Darth Vader-like presence to most longtime YSU fans. There was a disturbance in the force when the Crusaders came to town.

That was then. This is now.

The top two teams in the Horizon League come to YSU Thursday (Wright State) at 7 p.m. and Saturday (Northern Kentucky) at 2 p.m.

Wright State is in the driver’s seat in the league with a 13-2 record (23-5 overall). At worst this team is an NIT-bound club. Northern Kentucky is in second with an 11-4 mark (19-8 overall). These two are likely going to get double byes to the semifinals at the upcoming Horizon League Tournament.

The remaining eight teams have to scrap through the first-round and quarterfinal games which will be played at campus sites before making it to the final four in Indianapolis.

YSU is hoping to host two games before heading to Indy. The Penguins (15-12) are 8-6, tied for third with Green Bay (13-14). UIC (13-15) is a half-game behind in fifth at 8-7, coming off a 30-point win at Northern Kentucky. Milwaukee (12-14) and Cleveland State (10-17) are vying for that third seed at 6-8.

Four games remain for YSU as they host the two games at home this week and then are on the road next week at Milwaukee and Green Bay.

The Penguins are 11-3 at home. That 2000-01 YSU team was 10-2 inside the Beeghly Center.

Current YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun talked about home-court advantage and how the crowds, which have been the fourth-best in the league, have been instrumental in the Penguins’ success.

Calhoun reached out to new YSU football coach Doug Phillips, who said he’ll have his team come out to Thursday’s game against Wright State.

“We need the fans of Youngstown to come out,” Calhoun said. “They don’t realize how good they’ve been to us this year. They’ve helped us tremendously at home.

“I think if we get those fans out for the last two games it can make a huge impact.”

The reverberation around the Beeghly Center is something special when its near the 6,300-seat capacity and the fans are cheering for a team near the top of the league standings. It’s a feeling I won’t soon forget.

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