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Youngstown State defeats Akron, snaps losing skid

Penguins end 6-game skid with 53-52 win over rival Akron

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State’s Dena Jarrells drives and scores on a buzzer beater to end the first quarter. The Penguins beat Akron 53-52.

YOUNGSTOWN — The streak is over.

Needing to snap a six-game losing skid and facing scoring and shooting woes offensively, something had to give for the Penguins. So YSU leaned on its tried-and-tested defense against Akron.

Despite shooting 35.6% from the floor, the Penguins were able to limit the Zips to 36.8% shooting, as they held on for a 53-52 victory Wednesday night at the Beeghly Center.

“It feels really good — it’s nice to break that streak and get back on the right side of things,” acting head coach John Nicolais said. “It helps with morale, and hopefully we can take this and kind of springboard it into something good.”

The Penguins’ defensive effort started with limiting Akron junior forward Reagan Bass, who came in averaging 23.3 points per game this season, the fifth-best mark in the country.

Bass was coming off a 33-point outing last weekend, but YSU managed to hold her to 11 points on 4-of-13 shooting — her second lowest total of the season.

Paige Shy and Abby Liber drew the individual assignment of guarding Bass, but overall, it was a “team effort” for the Penguins.

“The big thing is, we told the team that everybody had to guard her — it wasn’t just (Shy and Liber’s) responsibility,” Nicolais said. “We tried to front and make the passing angles a little more difficult and we were throwing multiple guards from the weak side to double and make her uncomfortable to where she didn’t have a lot of space to operate. So they did a great job of listening to what we wanted to do on the scout and executed it really well tonight because Reagan’s really, really good.”

Whenever the Zips did get the ball to Bass in the post, YSU would bring help defense to swarm her and force her to give up the ball or force her into an errant shot.

“It was definitely our game plan, and I think we executed it really well,” Liber said. “I think Paige and I did a good job trying to deny the ball from getting into her, but with our teammates, we had great help with them always being there if they were to lob it in.”

However, the Penguins are still continuing to work through their recent offensive struggles.

They started the game 0-for-7 from the floor and it took them almost four minutes to score their first point, which eventually came on a driving layup from Shy at the 6:15 mark of the first quarter.

But once it settled in, YSU went on a 9-0 run and took a 13-9 lead by the end of the first quarter.

“I feel like our defense has been pretty consistent so far to this point,” Nicolais said. “It’s just trying to get the offense where we want it. (Wednesday), it was nice that we jumped out and actually got the lead at the end of the first quarter because some of the games we’ve been playing, we’ve been down at the end of the first and trying to (dig out of that hole.)”

As a result of the scoring issues, the Penguins had to try to find some alternative ways to score and get points to try to spark the offense.

Dena Jarrells had success driving into the lane and finishing in the paint, while Shay-Lee Kirby started to finally hit some shots from beyond the arc early in the third quarter.

“For me to come out and drive as much as I did, that’s not something I normally do because I am a distributor and I like to catch and shoot threes, but it just wasn’t falling for me,” Jarrells said. “I think it’s a mental thing for a lot of us, just seeing the ball go through the net. … I think it’s just building confidence with each and every one of us, and trusting each other when we’re on the floor, as well.”

After YSU led by six at halftime, back-to-back threes from Kirby to start the second half helped the Penguins balloon their lead up to 14, their largest of the night. Kirby finished with 10 points for YSU, while Jarrells had 12.

“I think after losing, there’s a fine line where teams get kind of hesitant with certain things, and I think we had gotten to that point,” Jarrells said. “I think this is our step (towards) coming out of that.”

The Zips had cut YSU’s lead all the way down to three with 16.6 seconds to go.

Out of a timeout, Morgan Haney missed a three-pointer, and Emily Saunders pulled down a rebound and was fouled with four seconds left. Needing to make just one free throw, Saunders went 1-for-2 at the line to ice the game for the Penguins, as Haney hit a three at the buzzer to arrive at the final tally.

“That was discussed in a couple timeouts there as it got late,” Nicolais said. “Don’t play this thing to hang on, to not lose, go win the game and execute the way you know how. I think being snake-bit a little bit in a few (close) games, it affects you a little bit. But I’m proud of how they found a way to get on the right side tonight.”

The Penguins head back out on the road now to face St. Francis (Pa.) on Saturday.

nmadhavan@tribtoday.com

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