By Joe Scalzo
Three weeks ago, after Youngstown State suffered its most disappointing loss of the season, Penguins coach Jerry Slocum gathered his team and said, in effect, something needs to change.
“That was one of the hardest losses for me to accept,” said Slocum, referring to a defeat at UMKC on Dec. 7. “I was really discouraged.”
Afterward, junior forward Shawn Amiker grabbed Slocum and said, “Coach, you’re right. I’m making a commitment that I’ll have both feet in the rest of the year.”
“Not that he wasn’t [committed],” Slocum said. “But that’s the kind of kid he is. He’s got that kind of soft spirit about him.”
Fast forward to Sunday. Amiker came off the bench to score a career-best 20 points — on 8 of 9 shooting — and grabbed seven rebounds as the Penguins put together their best game of the season, demolishing South Dakota 85-59 at Beeghly Center.
It was the final nonconference game of the season for the Penguins (9-6), who led 53-18 at halftime.
“Today was a tremendous effort,” Slocum said.
Kamren Belin scored 21 points with seven rebounds for YSU, while Kendrick Perry had 17 points and Bobby Hain 10.
The Penguins held South Dakota (3-9) to 27 percent shooting with 12 turnovers in the first half thanks to a defensive game plan that focused on trapping USD’s 6-10 senior center, Trevor Gruis, whenever he got the ball in the paint.
The Coyotes’ two leading scorers, Gruis and Brandon Bos, combined for just 10 points — 16 below their combined average — and South Dakota played most of its starters against YSU’s backups in the last 10 minutes to make the score respectable.
“It’s a great way to begin conference play,” said Amiker, whose team begins its Horizon League schedule Thursday at Milwaukee. “Our confidence is sky high going into conference play.”
That’s an especially good sign for Amiker, a talented but inconsistent player who is capable of wreaking havoc or disappearing in games, depending on his mental state.
When asked about his reputation for playing up (or down) to his confidence level, Amiker said, “I feel like that’s [true] with anyone. When you’re feeling, I feel like you play good. When you’re confident, and you feel like everything you put up is going to go in, and you feel like the person in front of you isn’t going to score, I feel like everyone is going to play a great game.”
Amiker started last season well before fading during Horizon League play, but he’s coming off a solid game against St. John’s (when he started for Kamren Belin) and was a difference-maker on both ends of the floor against South Dakota.
If he can continue to play that way, he could be an X-factor for the Penguins over the next three months.
“Our total emphasis is to respect everybody and play hard,” Amiker said. “If we play hard, we feel like we can beat anybody.”