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Gritty wins define these Penguins

Quiet. Michael Akuchie could hear the sounds of silence inside the confines of the Beeghly Center after basketball games. His squeaking shoes echoed. The sound of the bounces of the inflated, leather basketball, or as it grazed nylon baskets or clanked off the metallic rim reverberated in the abandoned space.

The 6-foot-8 junior from Plantation, Florida, spent countless hours in the quiet basketball arena honing his craft, putting up shot after shot with a Youngstown State University men’s basketball student assistant there to corral the errant shots.

It has paid off this season, especially as he had 20 points and 10 rebounds in Thursday’s 61-60 win over Oakland. The jovial senior came into the post-game news conference asking how everyone was doing. You could tell how Akuchie was feeling.

In the first 8 minutes of Thursday’s win there was no joy surrounding or on the Beeghly Center playing surface. The 2,815 fans around the arena looked on as the Penguins clanked shot after shot — missing their first nine attempts.

Devin Morgan’s 3-pointer 8 minutes into the game gave the weary fans — who were on their feet awaiting the first YSU basket — some much-needed relief after Oakland ran up a 13-0 lead.

YSU was 6-0 at home prior to facing a Golden Grizzlies team that has battled YSU recently in games decided at the buzzer.

Cameron Morse found a wide-open Jorden Kaufman under the basket for the game-winner in a 2017 Horizon League quarterfinal matchup in Detroit over then top-seeded Oakland.

Garrett Covington’s buzzer-beating jumper on Feb. 14, 2018, lifted YSU over the Golden Grizzlies in the Beeghly Center. After the euphoric moment, Covington’s father, John, gave him a big hug.

That late-game magic was an integral part of this tightly played series, which at times seems like a far-fetched tale.

Penguins coach Jerrod Calhoun said his teams in the past two seasons wouldn’t have been able to recover from the early deficit that YSU faced on Thursday. Frankly, not many YSU teams I’ve seen over the past two decades would have either.

Grit, determination, resolve; this year’s Penguins (10-7, 3-1 Horizon League) have carefully orchestrated a hard-nosed defense that has carried them in the early league season and to a 7-0 record inside the Beeghly Center. YSU hosts Detroit today at 2 p.m.

That defense was vital as YSU started to come back, cutting the lead to four at halftime.

Oakland’s leading scorer, Xavier Hill-Mais, picked up his fourth foul with about 17 minutes remaining in the second half. The Golden Grizzlies 6-11 center Brad Brechting had three fouls. The seemingly impenetrable fortress which was the Oakland interior defense had some cracks in it in the second half as YSU started to get second and third opportunities on possessions.

The Golden Grizzlies keyed in on Naz Bohannon, who was roughed up around the basket, even going to the bench after being raked over his eyes on a play. He managed to get nine rebounds, seven offensive ones. One of those two defensive rebounds was the reason he’s such an invaluable part of this Penguins team.

The 6-foot-6 forward took the board and didn’t look for an open man. He started a fast break and later found Darius Quisenberry for a quick two. It was Quisenberry who went the length of the court, untouched by pursuing Oakland defenders, to make the game-winning lay-up with 1.7 seconds remaining, giving him 15 points on the night.

Oakland had almost a three-to-one advantage in time of possession as its methodical half-court offense tried to take an upbeat YSU team out of its rhythm in the final minutes of what became a back-and-forth affair.

“We knew there were times where tempers were going to flare,” said Akuchie, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds. “People were going to get mad — coaches and players included. We all stayed together, close out plays and chip, chip, chip until we came out with the dub (win).”

If YSU wants to keep winning, it needs to find the grit, determination and resolve it has in three of the first four Horizon League games — something which was non-existent in a Jan. 4 loss at Cleveland State.

“Three out of four games, we’ve had that toughness,” Calhoun said. “When we do that, we have a shot. When we don’t, we don’t have a shot. Hopefully our guys can understand when you play that hard defensively, get stops, you get a chance to win a lot of games.”

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