Tough stretch won’t keep Penguins down

Despite two tough losses recently, Youngstown State men's basketball still has five games to push itself to the top of the Horizon League.

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DJ Burns celebrates hitting a three against Green Bay on Feb. 10. (Photo via YSU Athletics/Robert Hayes)

With five games remaining in the regular season, the Youngstown State University men’s basketball team may have just pushed itself from getting the regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the Horizon League tournament.

Just a few weeks ago, the Penguins were in a position to take over the lead with continued winning ways but luck wasn’t on its side over the past week and a half.

YSU (18-8, 10-5 HL) is now solidly in third and on the outside looking in for the chance to win the Horizon outright and secure the No. 1 seed.

Second half woes kill Penguins at PFW

Despite all its successes this year, YSU’s achilles heel has been second half play and playing with a lead. In this game, the Penguins lost the lead early in the second half and never got it back. In a game that seemed winnable for YSU, Purdue-Fort Wayne (16-9, 7-7 HL) found ways to get the lead and to never give it back.

The Mastodons tore it up in the second half against a much-improved defense to the tune of 48 second-half points. PFW shot 57.5 percent from the field in the second half en route to the 82-78 win. YSU couldn’t find consistent offense almost all game. If not for the fact that YSU hit 21 free throws in the second half, it would’ve gotten curb stomped.

The Penguins shot just 37.7 percent for the game and a horrendous 30 percent in the second half. That shooting put the Penguins behind quite quickly in the second half and it could never recover. Beyond bad shooting, turnovers killed YSU as it coughed up 13 turnovers that turned into 21 Mastodons’ points while PFW gave up the rock nine times for nine points.

Leading the way was DJ Burns with 15 points and 17 rebounds. EJ Farmer came off the bench to give YSU 19 points to lead the way in scoring. PFW was led by Jalen Jackson with 23 points.

OT Thriller against Milwaukee

After that tough loss to PFW, YSU came home to host both Wisconsin schools. First up was Milwaukee. The Panthers (12-13, 7-7 HL) are by no means the best in the league but you wouldn’t know because it always plays hard for every second of every game.

Yet another game, yet another good-sized lead blown by the Penguins. YSU got the home crowd rocking with a 12-0 run that prompted a timeout.

That was followed by an 11-0 run by the Panthers. Milwaukee went up by as much as 10 points before YSU put itself together to cut the lead to 43-37 at the break.

The Penguins did something similar to the first half. With just 4:22 left in the second half, YSU led 73-63. From that point forward, the Panthers ended regulation on a 14-4 run to tie the game at 77 going into overtime.

A 10-2 run to get overtime going was all YSU needed as it became a free throw game and YSU  missed just one free throw going 10-for-11 in overtime to secure a 97-85 win.

It is worth noting that Gabe Dynes finished with seven blocks in this game.

Heartbreak at the hands of Green Bay

In one of the most highly-anticipated games of the entire Horizon League year, YSU hosted Green Bay on Feb. 10 with a chance to tie for the conference lead.

Yet again, YSU got out to a fast start with a 7-0 lead. Green Bay (17-9, 12-3 HL) would take the lead about five minutes later at 19-16. The lead would switch hands a few more times before YSU took control into halftime with a 42-38 lead.

Late in the second half, both teams were trading clutch buckets. Tied at 79 with 1:51 to go is when the fun began. At that point, no one scored for nearly 1:20 until DJ Burns buried a three to give the Penguins a three-point lead. In the Phoenix’s next possession, Preston Ruedinger missed a shot that was rebounded and put in by Will Eames to make it 82-81 in favor of YSU.

After an intentional foul put Burns on the line, he made the first but missed the second. With just under seven seconds remaining, the Phoenix put together a beautiful play that had Foster Wonders open at the top of the key and he buried the shot. YSU couldn’t get a good shot off and the Phoenix escaped Youngstown with a 84-83 win.

“I feel disappointed mostly in myself. As a team, we all have our faults and we’re disappointed but I also work hard. I put my team in a position to win and I missed a free throw. Instead, it could’ve been a tied game and not a game winner,” Burns said.

Green Bay was led by Ruedinger with 26 points, five rebounds, and four assists. For the YSU, it was Burns who put together an incredible game with 32 points, and 16 rebounds with five made threes.

LOOKING AHEAD

Despite a couple of really tough losses recently, YSU still has a ton to play for. First on the docket is a home game against Robert Morris University on Feb. 14. YSU defeated RMU (10-15, 6-8 HL) all the way back on Dec. 2 in Moon Township, Pa., 71-57.

YSU put four starters in double digits in that game with Burns with 18, Brett Thompson with 17, Ziggy Reid with 14, and Brandon Rush with 12. RMU was led by Stephaun Walker with 20 points, and nine rebounds.

YSU will need to really bring the energy against a RMU team looking to scrap its way to the top half of the league.

After that, YSU will take the short trip to Cleveland to face off against Cleveland State University. Back all the way on Nov. 29, YSU dominated CSU from start to finish en route to a 94-69 win in the first conference game of the year.

YSU took advantage of the paint outscoring CSU (15-10, 8-6 HL) severely, 48-30. The Penguins defense also kept the Vikings to under 40 percent shooting.

The Penguins were led by John Lovelace Jr’s 23 points off the bench. The Vikings were led by Drew Lowder’s 17 points.

YSU will need to keep the defensive intensity high to take down a CSU squad that has won three of its last four games.

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