By Joe Scalzo
At the end of possibly his final practice at Beeghly Center ...
“It’s not my last one,” Youngstown State senior Ashen Ward said Wednesday. “I keep telling myself, ‘It’s not my last one’ until it actually is.”
OK, at the end of ONE OF his final practices at Beeghly Center, Ward was mixing in a few underhand scoop shots with his free throws, joking around with sophomore guard Kendrick Perry while sounding very much like a man who has no intention of letting his basketball career end tonight.
“I believe anybody can win this thing,” said Ward, whose Penguins (16-14) meet Detroit in the second round of the Horizon League tournament tonight at Valparaiso. “Honestly, that’s the way the Horizon League is. It’s a grind-it-out-to-the-finish type of league.
“We’re going to fight to the end of the clock and whatever happens, we’ll know we gave everything we had.”
That effort is one of the reasons this year’s team is the most successful since YSU joined the Horizon League in 2001-02. But it’s not the only one. There’s a bond between the players that you don’t find every year, coach Jerry Slocum said.
“They’re a group that cares a lot for each other,” said Slocum. “There’s a lot of intangibles in this game that can surface for you and it comes down to the fact that it’s a close-knit group that plays good basketball together.”
It also plays fun basketball together, often capping big shots by blowing on their index fingers (like a smoking gun), then holstering them. Or flicking their fingers in the air (as if to catch fire). Or looking through a circle made by their thumb and index fingers, with the other three fingers held up to signify a 3-pointer.
(They also rib each other. When asked if he got teased or complimented about his just-barely-got-it-down dunk at the end of Tuesday’s first-round win over Green Bay, Ward smiled and said, “I got complimented by my mom and teased by everyone else.”)
“I think that Coach [Slocum] knows when we play with a little bit of a swagger or a confidence about us, it gets the best out of each one of us,” said Ward. “That’s fun for us. We’re all brothers out there and we get to play basketball together.”
When asked if Slocum ever makes a 3-pointer in practice, then looks through his thumb and index finger, Ward cracked up and said, “No. That would be a funny thing to see, though.”
The Penguins lost to Detroit in Saturday’s regular season finale at Beeghly and split the season series with the Titans. Slocum has repeatedly called Detroit the league’s most talented team, which makes them both dangerous and unpredictable.
“I know everybody thinks it’s just coach talk but they are the most talented group in the league,” Slocum said of Detroit. “I’m not saying they play the best basketball in the league but if their minds are right and they play unselfishly and everybody gives an effort, they’re a very tough basketball team to beat.”
YSU is in the second round of the Horizon League tournament for just the second time and the first since 2007. It’s never made it to the third round.
“I was telling the guys [Tuesday], ‘Thanks for getting me out of the first round,’” said Ward, the only upperclassmen who has been with the team every season. “It’s been a battle. It’s been tough. And I appreciate it so much more everything I’ve been through here.
“I’m learning to enjoy every moment.”