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YSU concludes greatest season on hardwood

Staff photo / Greg Macafee The Youngstown State men’s basketball team huddles during a break in play against Northern Kentucky in their Horizon League semifinal matchup.

YOUNGSTOWN — Above the student section at the Beeghly Center, banners hang from sideline to sideline to highlight some of the high points of basketball history at Youngstown State.

The school will have to make room for a few more after the 2022-23 men’s basketball campaign, which was nothing short of the greatest season in program history.

The Penguins finished the year 24-10 — the most wins in a season since joining Division I, and a mark that ties the program’s all-time wins record when counting Division II seasons. YSU also captured its first regular season Horizon League title, made it to the Horizon League Tournament semifinals for just the second time in program history and made it to the NIT for the first time.

“We brought a group of guys together to come and really do something special,” YSU guard Dwayne Cohill said following YSU’s 69-64 loss to Oklahoma State in the NIT first round. “We all gelled together, and we all bought into a common goal. I think in the long run it’s going to do something special for Youngstown.”

Doing something special was a message the program was emanating dating back to summer workouts. As the collection of portal additions and program mainstays came together in July, there was a sense of something special building at the outset.

Over the offseason, YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun and his staff hit the portal hard. In the frontcourt, the Penguins added Adrian Nelson from Northern Kentucky and Malek Green from Canisius to pair with backcourt additions Bryce McBride from Eastern Michigan and Brandon Rush from Fairleigh Dickinson.

Those four each found starting roles for the majority of the season to go with Dwayne Cohill, the Penguins’ star who transferred in from Dayton a season before.

And from the outset, it was clear that the group was going to be an exciting one. In YSU’s first two games — at Canisius and home against UT Martin — the Penguins scored 92 and 90 points, respectively. That set the stage for a season in which Youngstown State led the Horizon League at 81.9 points per game by way of a potent fast-break system.

“If you’re a player, why would you not want to come here? It’s free-flowing. We score 82 points a game,” Calhoun said of the system.

While Calhoun obviously is hoping that continues to attract high-end talent, it also attracted fans — and lots of them. In the nonconference slate, YSU was drawing about 2,000 fans per game, give or take. That also doesn’t include the school day game against Grace Christian, in which local elementary schools packed Beeghly.

By season’s end, though, the turnout was much greater. After spending nearly all of January on the road, YSU played most of February at home and drew no less than 2,498 per game, that low point coming against Wright State on Feb. 2.

In fact, that was the only home game from Jan. 27 onward that didn’t have at least 3,000 on hand. The apex came in the Horizon League quarterfinals against Detroit Mercy, as 5,584 fans came out.

That, of course, came as the wins continued to flow in. After going 2-2 in the first four Horizon League games of the campaign, YSU finished 13-3 the rest of the way en route to a 15-5 mark in league play, its best since joining the conference.

Others took note, too. ESPN decided to show YSU’s Jan. 27 game against Oakland on ESPN2, which Youngstown State won 77-73. That set the stage for the raucous month of February.

Put it all together, and YSU finished third in the Horizon League at 3,053 fans per game, the highest mark in Calhoun’s tenure at YSU, which dates back to the 2017-18 season.

And between the team on the court and the multitude of people catching the game, there was a sense of something truly special building — something that had been missing from Youngstown for years.

“Just a remarkable year,” Calhoun said. “School record for wins, first regular season title — I couldn’t be more proud of this group and to be associated with these guys.”

Now, Cohill mentioned, it’s about continuing what’s been put in place.

“From the beginning of the season to the end of the season, Youngstown community, I appreciate you,” Cohill said. “Thank you to all our fans for the support and coming out, changing the culture, the tradition that’s going on here. Hopefully, there’s more to come and somebody can do exactly what we did or more.”

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