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YSU looks forward after critical road trip

Penguins set to take on Wright State on Thursday

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State guard Dena Jarrells dribbles past an IUPUI defender during their contest on Jan. 16.

YOUNGSTOWN — A week ago, Youngstown State was upset by IUPUI and faced its toughest road test of the season days later with visits to Green Bay and Milwaukee.

But, as their season faced its most critical point, the Penguins pulled through. YSU managed a road sweep of Green Bay and Milwaukee for just the third time in 22 years, and now sits in a three-way tie for first place in the Horizon League with Cleveland State and Green Bay halfway through conference play.

The second half of the league slate begins with Wright State on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN+, 570 AM WKBN).

“It was a tough one to lose knowing you’re going on the road to Green Bay and Milwaukee, but I’m just proud of our leadership, proud of our upperclassmen and our players to just buckle down and find a way,” YSU coach John Barnes said. “I feel like that was the bottom line. They were just going to tough it out and find a way to win.”

Toughing it out will be commonplace down the last five weeks of the season now, as each of the Horizon League’s 11 teams have played each other and now await rematches.

In their first meeting, YSU (14-5, 8-2 Horizon League) raced out to a 23-point lead after the first quarter en route to a 76-62 win over the Raiders (2-18, 1-9 Horizon League). That was back on Dec. 4.

Now, Wright State is entering on a three-game losing skid. The Raiders last win — and lone conference win — came Jan. 13 at Detroit Mercy, an 82-69 decision.

Ahead of their second meeting, Barnes is anticipating a challenge for his team’s perimeter defense, as WSU is second in the Horizon League in 3-point field goal percentage (35.3 percent) and first in threes made per game (9.6).

When adjusting to conference-only stats, Wright State is making 35.4 percent of its treys and makes 10.1 per game.

Bryce Nixon paces the Raiders at 11.8 points per game, while Kacee Baumhower follows at 9.2 points per game. Emily Chapman adds 8.7 per contest. All three are listed as guards.

“All five of their starters can shoot the three. … They absolutely light it up from 3-point range, and they’re smart,” Barnes said. “They run some good stuff on offense to get those shooters open, so we have to be incredibly sharp on defense and understand what they’re doing and trying to execute to get those open looks.”

YSU, meanwhile, is looking to hit its stride as January concludes and the final month of the regular season begins. Barnes and guard Dena Jarrells both say the Penguins haven’t hit their full potential yet and are looking to peak as the postseason draws near.

Jarrells was a critical piece of YSU’s Wisconsin trip, posting 11 points and five assists against the Phoenix and 10 points and four assists against Milwaukee. Teammate Lilly Ritz is averaging 17.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, while Malia Magestro (11.3 points per game) and Megan Callahan (10.4 points per game) also are averaging in double figures.

“I think we have the potential to be a way better team than what we’re playing right now,” Jarrells said. “But I think with each game, the way we’re looking at it and the anticipation going into the (conference) tournament and being able to play the way we can, I think that we’re very capable of winning the (conference) tournament and making a run into the NCAA Tournament.”

Barnes added, “There are seven or eight teams that can win it. … I think a lot of teams are trying to put everything together for the stretch run here, just like we are. I don’t think we’re playing our best basketball yet. I think we can continue to get better, and hopefully you do that by the end of the season.”

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