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Penguins begin Horizon schedule

Assistant coach Jason Slay is sitting near the front of the team’s bus. His AirPods are in, black ballcap is on his head and his focus is straight ahead as the vehicle starts motoring down I-71 Friday afternoon toward its final destination in Indianapolis.

The attention of the Youngstown State University men’s basketball associate coach is on a video of the team’s opponents the next two days — IUPUI and UIC, the alphabet soup teams of the Horizon League — which is playing on his laptop.

Today at noon the Penguins begin league play against IUPUI in Indianapolis. YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun calls it the team’s second season.

The first was the non-conference play in which the Penguins (7-6) recorded a 6-0 record at the Beeghly Center and also put together a strong performance against then No. 25-ranked West Virginia in which YSU led by three at halftime.

YSU’s sophomore point guard Darius Quisenberry had 22 points in the 11-point loss on Dec. 21 at the Covelli Centre in Youngstown. Quisenberry is one of the best players in the Horizon League. The Springfield native, at this pace, is jockeying for a spot as a first-team Horizon League player.

Statistically, the Penguins are atop most league categories, including rebounding. YSU holds almost a five-rebound edge over its first 13 opponents.

The 6-foot-6 Lorain native Naz Bohannon is second among league players with almost nine per game, grabbing more than his fair share of offensive boards. He leads the league with 49 offensive rebounds. YSU is 18th in the NCAA with 13.5 offensive boards per outing.

Four Horizon teams — Northern Kentucky, Wright State, YSU and Oakland — hold their opponents to less than 70 points per game. YSU is at 67.5. Oakland leads with 64.8, but the Golden Grizzlies have a stagnant offense with 62.5 points each game.

Only, YSU, Wright State and Northern Kentucky come into Horizon play with winning records. The rest of the seven teams are below .500 — including IUPUI (4-9) and UIC (5-8). Monday’s game at UIC in Chicago is at 7 p.m. It’s the start of a three-game road trip that ends Jan. 4 at Cleveland State.

As for the YSU women, if you told Penguins coach John Barnes his team would be 7-4 heading into today’s game at 1 p.m. against IUPUI at the Beeghly Center, and Monday’s 7 p.m., contest versus UIC there’s a good bet Barnes and YSU would take that result heading into league play. The Penguins have the second-best record among the 10 league teams. Cleveland State is 10-1.

YSU’s only senior, 6-3 Mary Dunn, has been out since the Eastern Michigan win in mid-November. She averaged 17 points through those first four games. She has since had her meniscus cleaned and is on her path back to the court.

Emma VanZanten, a 6-4 junior transfer, fractured her foot in the following game at Akron. Amara Chikwe, a 6-1 sophomore, has been out since early November on concussion protocol.

Freshman Jen Wendler, 6-2, has been the only true post player for the Penguins who have been reliant on 5-9 junior McKenah Peters to shoulder a fair share of the bumps and bruises near the basket. When Wendler isn’t on the floor, YSU has gone to a smaller lineup. Wendler shoots a team-best 79.5 percent from the free-throw line.

Chelsea Olson is one of the more versatile players in the league. The lanky 5-9 YSU guard is in the top 10 in points (11), rebounds (7.91) and assists (3.27). Olson leads the league with seven defensive rebounds per game through 11 games. She was the second player in school history to get a triple-double, which she did in the team’s opener against Canisius.

The Penguins can take it outside as freshman Maddie Schires lights it up for a league-best 2.64 3-pointers per game. The YSU sharpshooter has complemented the Penguins, who are trying to find their way as Horizon League play starts.

Barnes said earlier this month YSU can be competitive in every league game if the team is at full strength, which means Dunn presence on the floor will be necessary for the Penguins to win this second half of the season. Horizon League play could be bumpy without that dominant inside presence, especially against teams like Cleveland State, Green Bay, Wright State and IUPUI.

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