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Routine pays off for Penguins’ Simmons

Correspondent photo / John Vargo YSU sophomore guard Jelani Simmons, center, celebrates with Penguins associate head coach Jason Slay after Saturday’s win over Cleveland State.

YOUNGSTOWN — Unnoticeable in the box score, and even harder to spot in the play-by-play summary.

The steal by 6-foot-5 sophomore guard Jelani Simmons was what the Youngstown State University men’s basketball team needed in Saturday’s game.

The game clock inside the Beeghly Center read 13:39 remaining in the game against Cleveland State. The Penguins were in the midst of a 21-5 run, trailing by six at halftime.

Simmons zoned in on CSU’s Torrey Patton after a rebound off a Darius Quisenberry missed free throw. The YSU sophomore guard jarred the basketball loose from Patton’s hands, quickly ending up with Naz Bohannon as the Penguins defense clamped down on YSU in front of its own bench.

Quisenberry procured the basketball and found an open Michael Akuchie driving toward the basket, where he brought the crowd to its feet with a two-handed slam.

Simmons had a career-high 23 points off the bench, but making plays like this is what helped YSU win its second straight and sit in third in the Horizon League standings at 7-5 and 14-11 overall.

“He does a lot of intangible things with his length and athleticism,” said YSU associate head coach Jason Slay. “He’s just like a typical player. The more he can feel comfortable offensively, the more he’s going to do defensively.”

Getting Simmons from where he was the first part of the year to now was pretty simple, finding the Columbus native a routine. Slay has been instrumental, making sure his sophomore guard stays on point on and off the court.

They were hit or miss with workouts, extra lifting and extra film sessions. Slay and Simmons go into the gym around 9 a.m., each morning for a 30-minutes shooting session. They’ll watch clips from their last game. Most importantly, Slay will make sure Simmons is staying ahead of his studies.

“I’ve taken up all his free time and put it toward working on our craft,” Slay said. “Really, it’s nothing extreme that we’ve done. We’ve been doing it consistently.”

Simmons said Slay has been there from start to finish, getting him used to a routine.

Each Sunday, Simmons sends slay his schedule for the week.

“He always check it for me after practice and see what assignments I have due next day or what I did in school,” Simmons said. “It helps me stay on track and not lose focus on my schoolwork.”

The YSU sophomore guard has to be instrumental in the Penguins next two games, tonight at Detroit Mercy (7 p.m.) and Saturday at Oakland (3 p.m.).

YSU beat the Titans and Golden Grizzlies last month at home by a combined three points. Every little detail matters in these upcoming road games.

“I think it’s an every day thing where he’s got to take advantage of each day,” Slay said. “It’s going to put him in a good position (tonight) to be successful for us and Saturday.”

Just maybe, Simmons can rise up like he did against Cleveland State — block a player bigger than himself. The former Columbus Beechcroft High School standout, arguably the best leaper on the Penguins, blocked the shot of 6-8 CSU forward Algevon Eichelberger with 29 second remaining and YSU holding a 10-point advantage.

“That block send relief through my body,” Simmons said. “I knew we were going to win after that block. I knew the game was over. It just felt real good.”