YSU revels at chance to play in WNIT

YOUNGSTOWN — McKenah Peters had trouble holding back her emotions last week. Tears flowed as she got choked up answering a question during a March 11 post-game news conference inside Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

She and her teammates exited the floor where the Detroit Pistons play under a massive jumbotron, casting a large presence over the playing surface below.

Green Bay posted a 12-point lead on Youngstown State during the first half, but the Penguins fought back like they have all year to take a couple short-lived leads in the second half. YSU had two shots to tie or win in the final 30 seconds.

Getting to the Horizon League title game hasn’t happened since the Penguins were in former Mid-Continent Conference in the 1999-2000 season. That year, YSU won and went to the NCAA Tournament. That’s the last time YSU has been there. That’s where these Penguins wanted to go this season.

Waiting. That’s exactly what YSU had to do the next week besides working on fundamentals.

Penguin senior guard Melinda Trimmer said the team worked on defensive fundamentals, made sure they’re seeing both the player and the ball and box-out drills in preparation for some kind of postseason tournament. Monday, her team and coaching staff waited and hit the refresh button many times on the Women’s NIT Twitter account. Due to the snafu with the women’s NCAA Tournament bracket being released early, the WNIT announcement was moved up an hour. YSU found out it got in around 8 p.m., but the Penguins didn’t know who they played until 10:40 that night.

Celebration happened as much as it could through the technological-based era. No watch party, just mass emails, texts and instant messages. Not much could contain the happiness as YSU (22-9) found out it is playing at Cincinnati (21-10) on Thursday, starting at 7 p.m.

Motivation? Is it there? You darn right it is. Sure, YSU didn’t make the NCAAs, but this is the only the third time the Penguins made the WNIT, which is still pretty prestigious.

Cincinnati, West Virginia, Minnesota, Ohio State are just some of the high-level teams in this field.

YSU is 6-7 away from the Beeghly Center. So what? These Penguins are about this tournament. That was the regular season. Enough said.

“If you can’t get fired up to play them, then you’re in it for the wrong reasons or you shouldn’t be in it,” YSU coach John Barnes said. “We’ll definitely be fired up, ready to go and ready to compete.”

See, this opportunity is something for the team’s three seniors, Sarah Cash (who is in her fifth year due to a medical redshirt), Alison Smolinski and Melinda Trimmer.

“We have a couple more chances to get a few more wins and definitely win a championship,” Trimmer said. “That would be sweet.”

It would be, but first thing is first. Winning Thursday. Cash and junior Mary Dunn have to get some post touches. Why? The Penguins are an inside-out team predicated on 3-point makes. YSU has the best 3-point shooter in the Horizon League in Smolinski. She is the Penguins’ all-time best shooter from long range and set the Horizon League single-season mark this season, having 104.

YSU led the league in scoring margin, field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage, 3-point field-goal percentage, assists, assists-to-turnover ratio and 3-pointers per game. Cash, Smolinski, Dunn and Chelsea Olson all average double figures.

Olson is a fierce competitor, using every bit of her 5-9 frame to grab more than seven rebounds a game, a team best. Diving on the floor, driving, running the offense — not much gets by this talented sophomore.

Amara Chikwe comes off the bench to give some relief in the post and is a defensive specialist, while Peters usually draws the team’s best player. She is the team’s most intense player and a valuable piece to this Penguins puzzle. Peters shoots 3s, rebounds and isn’t afraid to dive on the floor for a loose ball.

“We would not be where we are without her,” Barnes said. “She revels guarding the other team’s best perimeter player and does everything she can to stop them.”

Thursday, it’s about stopping Cincinnati. If the Penguins get past the Bearcats and the following round, YSU could face Green Bay again. You can bet these Penguins would love to have another shot at the Phoenix.