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Hurt turns to focus for YSU

CHICAGO — Steve McClain looked over and saw Darius Quisenberry on the floor, crying. The UIC coach helped the Youngstown State University men’s basketball leading scorer to his feet.

It looked like Garrett Covington, YSU’s junior guard and defensive specialist, had shed a few tears himself before talking in a postgame interview.

The Penguins’ Horizon League quarterfinal matchup on Thursday didn’t go as expected.

It usually has been a stumbling block for the Penguins program — advancing only once to the Horizon League quarterfinals. That was the 2016-17 season on a last-second win over then top-seeded Oakland to earn a spot in the final four.

That’s where YSU wanted to be at this time — in Indianapolis, playing for a Horizon League Championship and the first NCAA Tournament berth in school history. It explains the tears. Coming short of your goal always hurts.

That hurt turns to focus very soon, though.

The CollegeInsider.com Tournament is in the Penguins’ sights, with the opportunity to play at least one game at home in about a week or so. Hosting a first-round game in the CIT cost $35,000 in the 2012-13 season. It’s expected the cost will be covered by sponsorships, as it was done the last time YSU was in the CIT. People in Youngstown will support winning basketball.

In that 2012-13 season, the Penguins went 18-16. This year’s YSU team already has 18 wins. Frankly, I thought 15 wins was a good goal for this team. Take the 18 and keep improving. This YSU team keeps surpassing expectations.

With two wins in the CIT, YSU will have the most wins since the 1997-98 season when the Penguins, coached by the late Dan Peters, went 20-9. That team made the Mid-Continent Conference title game.

It’s not the NCAA Tournament. It’s not the NIT, but it’s changing the culture for a program — led by third-year coach Jerrod Calhoun and his hard-working staff and players — which has won eight, then 12 and now 18 games and counting.

Someone texted me the other day and said this Penguin program was reminiscent of the Peters days. Great comparison. I was only here for his last season when YSU went .500 and advanced to the Mid-Continent Conference semifinals in Moline, Illinois.

The Penguins had a noon, Central time game on a Sunday against Southern Utah in the quarterfinals in the 1998-99 season. Without going into the details of my somewhat complicated travel arrangements, I arrived at halftime of the YSU-Southern Utah game.

Peters made a beeline to me after YSU won by about 20 points.

“You should come to halftime of all of our games,” he said. We had a good, quick laugh.

One thing about this season that did not draw laughs around the YSU program was the exclusion of Naz Bohannon from the Horizon League’s all-star teams.

Why was YSU’s most consistent player left off the three teams in the HL? He’s not one of the top 15 players in the league? The Lorain native averaged 11.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and shot 51.7 percent from the floor. That’s worthy of being in the top 15 in this league.

He was very instrumental in why YSU won 18 games this season.

Quisenberry was named to the first team. Covington was on the all-defensive team, and Devin Morgan was sixth man of the year. Capping YSU at three players? No respect for the Penguins in this league.

The Penguins can gain some respect with a good showing in the CIT.

They must defend (keeping teams to 70 points or below), rebound (something lacking Thursday against UIC) and play with intensity — those always have been the keys for this team.

Sure, it would’ve been great to see YSU get to this year’s Horizon League semifinals. That’s certainly a goal for the Penguins next year, and I think the Penguins will be in Indy, fighting to be one of the best teams in the Horizon League. It’s not hype. It’s the truth.

YSU should be one of the top two in the preseason poll, but as what happened to Bohannon, I don’t hold out too much hope.

So it’s the CIT followed by offseason training. It’s a brick-by-brick process this YSU team has put forth since late March of 2017, not skipping steps of building a successful program people can support in Youngstown.

Next year, those tears turn to celebration.

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