YOUNGSTOWN — It wasn’t the consistency Youngstown State was looking for, Michael Akuchie admitted. Nevertheless, it was a win that keeps Youngstown State in the race for the Horizon League’s top four.
Leading by 17 at halftime, the Penguins quickly found themselves in a fistfight with short-handed IUPUI, as the Jaguars rallied to within three. But an Akuchie dunk that keyed YSU’s response and refocused defense enabled Youngstown State to pull away for a 74-61 victory on Senior Day at the Beeghly Center. The win is YSU’s 12th in conference play, a program record.
“It felt like it was a slugfest — just not the consistency we probably wanted,” Akuchie said. “But at the end of the day, I’m always proud of our team for (earning) ugly wins. Those are tough wins. To finish the game out when we’re going through slumps, I’m extremely proud of our team for getting ugly wins.”
The first half was anything but ugly, particularly its ending.
After B.J. Maxwell drew IUPUI to within 35-26 with 1:43 left in the half, Youngstown State (18-11, 12-7) finished on a quick 8-0 run, as Akuchie put back his own miss, Owen Long added a free throw and then Dwayne Cohill scored a second-chance bucket off a missed Long free throw.
After Tevin Olison stole the ball in a full-court press, Akuchie finished the half with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to send the Penguins into the locker room up 43-26.
Akuchie, Cohill and Olison paced the Penguins throughout the contest. Akuchie scored a game-high 21 points and added 13 rebounds for a double-double, while Cohill scored 19 points and Olison added 15 points.
Out of halftime, though, the Jaguars (3-23, 1-14) went on a furious rally. Powered by Chuks Isitua and Maxwell, IUPUI trimmed its 45-28 deficit to a 57-54 disadvantage. Isitua shot 6-of-9 for 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while Maxwell added 14 points of his own.
Nathan McLure (13 points) and Bakari LaStrap (10 points) also scored in double figures for the Jaguars, who played with six players as they have for much of this season.
“Give IUPUI a lot of credit; those kids battled,” YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun said. “Their coaches have really been thrown into a difficult situation with all their injuries and all the COVID issues they’ve dealt with this year, so I give them a lot of credit for staying the course. They’re a small team, hard to guard off the bounce, and you saw they made a lot of plays in that second half.”
Just as the Jaguars reached that apex, though, the Penguins found an answer. Akuchie hammered down a dunk off a pass from Cohill, and that ignited a 13-2 run that put Youngstown State back out to a 70-56 advantage.
“When you have five guys on the court that are all together, and when everybody is fighting for the same thing, it’s not really that hard (to regain momentum),” Cohill said. “It’s as simple as we come into the huddle and everybody says, ‘All right, let’s go. They went on a run, now it’s time for us to go.’”
Akuchie and Olison were two of five seniors honored for YSU’s Senior Day. Also recognized were Jamir Thomas, Garrett Covington and Greyson Kelley.
“Great day. We honored five kids that have meant so much to my family and me and a lot of people … These kids have had a big imprint on what we’ve been able to do here for five years,” Calhoun said. “So we wanted to make sure we sent them out the right way with a win and the great crowd and the excitement, so that was nice.”
With sweeps of UIC and IUPUI taken care of, Youngstown State, which has won eight of its last nine games, now turns its attention to the final week of the regular season. The Penguins visit Wright State and Northern Kentucky — two teams in YSU’s path to the top four — on Thursday and Saturday, respectively. The Penguins will need to win out and get a little help in order to break into that top four. Horizon League seeding will be based on conference win percentage, and most of the teams with which YSU is jockeying for that coveted spot play each other today.
“We try not to look too much (at Horizon League results and standings), but of course we’re paying attention,” Cohill said. “We’re looking at all kinds of games that we need people, certain teams, to win and stuff like that, but mainly we try to just focus on ourselves and get better every day and focus on what’s next for us.”
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