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Penguins find a way to hold off Vikings

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes Youngstown State sophomore Maddie Schires shoots and scores a 3-pointer on Saturday against Cleveland State.

YOUNGSTOWN — It has been a season like none other for athletic programs all over the country. Two pandemic-related shutdowns canceled the first nine games of the season for the Youngstown State women’s basketball team, but they traversed through the rest of the season uninterrupted, and the marathon is over — for now.

Saturday afternoon’s contest against Cleveland State had similar themes to the front end of the back-to-back, but unlike on Friday, the Penguins made a few key stops to defeat the Vikings, 64-61, within the Beeghly Center.

Cleveland State (9-8, 8-8) cut the lead to three after YSU led by 10 with 3:18 to go. Seeing a big lead disappear happened to the Penguins on Friday, but regrouping was key to closing out Saturday’s win.

“I think when that happens a couple times it is in the back of your mind,” YSU coach John Barnes said. “So for us to be able to finish was big, and we needed a win going into tournament time, get our spirits up and get some confidence.”

YSU’s win locked the Penguins into the seventh seed within the Horizon League tournament, allowing them to host a first-round game against 10th seed Purdue Fort Wayne (1-21, 1-19), a team YSU swept twice at home earlier in the season.

Seven points within 32 seconds by Cleveland State cut the YSU lead to 59-56, but sophomore Maddie Schires was wide open near the Penguins’ bench and drilled a 3-pointer off a pass from freshman Nneka Obiazor to put her team back up by six. Just seconds later, a huge foul call on Mariah White off a CSU miss gave Schires the opportunity to hit a pair of free throws with the bonus in play.

White, the most prolific scorer in the league, responded with a tough turnaround floater off one hand against YSU’s Chelsea Olson which cut it to 64-58. A free throw by Isabelle Gradwell and a massive second-chance layup by CSU’s Aminata Ly caused it to be a one possession game with 42 seconds left.

Following a Vikings timeout with 2.1 seconds left, White fed the ball to Leo who fired off a 3-pointer in time, but Olson tipped the ball and thwarted any chance of the ball even making it to the rim.

Youngstown State (9-7, 9-7) knows if a team has a positive test for COVID now, their season is over, a fear that coaches and players have all around the country.

Correspondent photo / Robert Hayes YSU redshirt senior Emma VanZanten is introduced prior to tip-off against CSU. It was her first start of the season on her senior night. 

But for Barnes, it’s also bigger than basketball.

“You’re on edge every test, every test I go sit down to take, I’m scared to death that I’m going to have it or one of the players or coaches,” he said. “Not only for the rest of the team and the rest of the people in the bubble, but for how sick someone could get too.

“I try to sit back and think, there’s people dying of this and we’re trying to play basketball games, kind of weigh that out. But I think the players have done a good job of keeping things in perspective and being happy that we’ve gotten in there week-in and week-out and hoping for a strong finish in the tournament.”

Prior to tip-off, the Penguins honored redshirt senior Emma VanZanten and senior Amara Chikwe. Both players have battled through injuries during their collegiate careers, with Chikwe serving as a student assistant during her final season, and VanZanten seeing her first start of the campaign.

They were given flowers, as video messages from their family members and teammates left Chikwe and VanZanten in tears, on what would normally have been a day with parents and other family in attendance.

“That’s just another thing that puts things into perspective, it’s been a very tough year for a lot of people, hard on their families who can’t come and watch them play,” Barnes said. “Shoot, they’ve been watching every game their whole life, a lot of them, and now they couldn’t come here.

“So, it was really fun to see the statements from the parents and the friends and stuff, happy for those guys, send out on a win in their final regular season home game, and hopefully we can make a tournament run for them.”

Senior Mary Dunn led all scorers with 24, and Obiazor and Schires scored 12 points each.

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