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Ups and downs of YSU game Saturday

Jason Slay looked around as the Youngstown State University men’s basketball team began to warm up with some stretching exercises.

The YSU associate coach glanced around and started clapping. He observed his players — some stretching, others dunking. The group gathered around the basket.

Clusters of fans started to file into the Beeghly Center about this time on Saturday, gathered in the upper and lower sections of the building that has stood since the early 1970s.

A lanky Northern Kentucky player began to attempt half-court shots, missing one after another. Where’s YSU senior Devin Morgan? This is his thing. The NKU player finally banks one in the basket. Morgan would’ve swished it.

A table is brought out near center court where three bouquets of flowers sit, waiting for seniors Matt Manley, Donel Cathcart III and Morgan. The three were honored about 10 minutes before the game.

Cathcart isn’t in the line coming out onto the floor of Beeghly Center. He’s in the chairback seats, coaxing his grandmother out of the stands. He and YSU director of basketball operations Paul Molinari help her to the floor.

Many area elementary school students lined up on the baseline. They eventually made two lines greeting the YSU starting lineup. The line took up more than half of the court.

YSU assistant coach Ethan Faulkner did the greetings as NKU players were introduced, fist- bumping the starting five. Faulkner is a former Norse player.

The crowd continued to make its way inside, getting to their seats in the first couple minutes of the half.

They saw Cathcart and Morgan with back-to-back 3-pointers for a quick 6-0 lead, bringing a roar from the gathering.

Tyler Sharpe, a 6-foot, 200-pound senior guard from NKU, was part of the wrecking crew that demolished YSU at the BB&T Arena more than a month ago. He had a career-high 33 points as the Norse blindsided the Penguins from 3-point range and had their way through the interior, as YSU was seemingly defenseless against the NKU offense.

Sharpe was held scoreless in the first 10 minutes on Saturday, a point of emphasis for the Penguins. He finally scored with 9:16 left in the half, but not before he shuffled his feet in the paint and threw the ball away toward the midcourt stripe.

YSU got looks, but nothing fell for the Penguins as they trailed 28-16 with 2:58 left in the half.

It began to look just like the road game about a month ago. The Penguins had no answers for the run. How was YSU going to survive, or would the Penguins succumb to their own shortcomings once again?

Defense creates offense, but not much was going on at this point. Just many missed shots and fans were left wondering at what they were seeing.

Devin Morgan made a floater with 2:30 left. YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun implored his team get back and implement a full-court trap. Nothing. A three-point play for the Norse on the other end made it 30-18 and the 4,200-plus in attendance were stunned.

Northern Kentucky 34, YSU 20 at halftime. Horrific shooting as NKU’s zone defense held the Penguins to 6-of-27 from the floor and 3-of-10 from 3.

NKU’s Dantez Walton was the only player in double figures after 20 minutes, as the 6-6 senior forward shot 50 percent from the field and 3-point stripe.

Garrett Covington, YSU’s best defender, hounded Walton in the first couple minutes of the second half. Covington drew a charge on Walton. It was a start for YSU.

T-shirts were being thrown into the stands with 15:33 left and NKU held a 42-30 lead. At least the fans had a reason to cheer and get out of their seats.

There was no rhythm for YSU. Darius Quisenberry, who had 41 points on Thursday, was limited to four with 12:46 remaining. He finished with nine points. Offensively, the Penguins were stagnant. It would have to be the defense to lead to success for YSU.

Finally, Quisenberry hit a 3-pointer with 11:46 left. The crowd came to its feet in unison with a loud cheer as YSU trailed 44-37. The YSU sophomore started to flail his arms toward the crowd, as he did often in the 88-70 win over Wright State Thursday.

It was far and few between, though, as Northern Kentucky played YSU Thursday role, getting the offensive rebounds and second-chance opportunities.

The Norse trapped Quisenberry and Naz Bohannon on every offensive opportunity. Someone had to step up for YSU. NKU was keeping the Penguins at arm’s length, never getting closer than six points.

The 50/50 balls were going the Norse’s way. This senior-laden NKU team has been to two of the last three NCAA Tournaments. They find a way to win. Saturday was no exception as Sharpe’s 3 with about 2:30 left made it a 59-50 NKU advantage.

Bohannon, playing with four fouls, found an offensive board and passed it to Jelani Simmons for a bucket with 2:08 left. YSU trailed 59-53.

The Penguins closed the gap to two on two Covington free throws with about 30 seconds left. A charging foul was called on NKU’s Trevon Faulkner with 10 seconds remaining.

Bohannon started to motion to the fans and they responded. Quisenberry’s 3-point shot with 3 seconds left was off the mark. Bohannon grabbed the rebound and went up. There was a foul, but nothing is ever called in the final seconds. Time expired. NKU 61, YSU 59.

A couple of fans behind me, as they left, said it was a good, competitive game. In years past, YSU would get blown out in games like this one, but not today. The Penguins almost came back from a 14-point halftime deficit.

YSU goes on the road for games Thursday at Green Bay and Saturday at Milwaukee. The Penguins will be fighting for third place in the Horizon League as NKU and Wright State have locked up the top two seeds and their automatic double byes to the Horizon League semifinals.

The Penguins must earn their way there and it will take two wins to do so. The next two YSU games will decide how and if the Penguins get to Indianapolis for the Horizon final four.

The choice is theirs.

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