By Joe Scalzo
Ashen Ward had just been fouled on a 3-point attempt and as he sprawled out face down on the court, he let out a short scream, then smiled and said, “They wanted to take me out.”
Turns out, all Illinois-Chicago needed to do was wait a few minutes.
Behind a season-best 22 points from Ward and what head coach Jerry Slocum called the best defensive performance of his seven-year tenure, the Youngstown State men’s basketball team routed the Flames 71-50 in a Horizon League game at Beeghly Center.
It was the Penguins’ first 20-point league victory since defeating Green Bay 95-70 on Jan. 5, 2006.
“I’ve won more games this year in the league than I’ve done in my whole career,” said Ward, whose Penguins (9-6, 4-1) are off to their best conference start since 2000-01, when they were in the Mid-Continent Conference. “We’re in a good place right now.”
No kidding. Considering YSU went 2-17 in the league each of the past two years, you have to wonder, what’s next? Fifty-degree weather? A series of earthquakes? A Browns playoff game?
“It’s a new Horizon,” Ward said. “We’re fighting right now. We want to be one of the top teams in the league and we feel like if we continue to work hard and put forth the effort we did tonight, we can do that.”
The Penguins ran out to a 17-3 lead to start the game, held the Flames to 31.6 percent shooting for the game and actually led by 30 with 11:45 left, prompting Slocum to start substituting liberally.
Needless to say, that doesn’t happen often with this program.
“This afternoon around 2 o’clock, I sat here and said that every game we’ve been in, with the exception of one game this season, has been determined in the last four minutes,” said Slocum. “They’ve all been nail-biters, right down to the last two minutes, possession-wise.”
Hayden Humes had 11 points for UIC (5-11, 1-5), which has lost three straight. Darrin Williams added nine points and eight rebounds.
Sophomore Kendrick Perry scored 14 points with seven rebounds, six assists and four steals for YSU. Junior Blake Allen had 10 points and seven rebounds and junior Damian Eargle scored 11 points with seven rebounds and five blocks.
But the night belonged to Ward, who scored a season-high for the second straight game. He scored the Penguins’ first 14 points of the second half (UIC had just two over that stretch) and could often be seen flicking his fingers as he backpedaled down the stretch.
“That’s just a little thing — catching fire, lighting matches,” he said, laughing.
But while his scoring gets the most attention, it’s the little things that Slocum notices — and appreciates — most.
“Whether he makes the shots or doesn’t, he’s our leader,” Slocum said. “He’s the voice in the locker room every day, he’s the voice on the floor, he’s the voice that pushes guys to play harder in practice.
“He’s by far the best leader that I’ve had since I’ve been here. He just makes everyone around him work hard and will not tolerate people not doing it.”