YOUNGSTOWN — Originally, this was supposed to be the resumption of Horizon League play.
Coming back from the holiday break, Youngstown State was scheduled to head to Michigan to begin a road swing against Detroit Mercy and Oakland.
Until UDM went into COVID-19 protocol, that is. That game was ruled as a “no contest” by the Horizon League.
Instead, YSU took on Division III Defiance College on Wednesday night at the Beeghly Center, and posted a 96-56 victory.
“When you guys (the media) were interviewing me yesterday at about 1 o’clock, that’s when I got the call from (Detroit Mercy) coach (Mike) Davis and got notified there could be a possibility (that the game would be called off). This thing lingered throughout (Tuesday) afternoon, and we got real fortunate to get a game,” YSU head coach Jerrod Calhoun said.
As was expected, the Penguins (8-4) dominated from start to finish. YSU never trailed and led by as much as 45 in the win over the visiting Yellow Jackets (4-4).
All 12 players who entered the game for YSU scored, and four Penguins finished in double figures. Will Dunn scored a team-high 14 points and secured nine rebounds, while Michael Akuchie scored 11 points and grabbed 10 boards. Myles Hunter added 12 points, and Jacori Owens scored 10 points and snagged six rebounds.
Shemar Rathan-Mayes, who suffered what Calhoun said was an ankle sprain during the Penguins’ loss at West Virginia, was in the lineup and played 13:45 of game time. He finished with eight points and a pair of assists.
“We were watching tape really almost up until the game because I’m the type of coach, I’m going to take every opponent (seriously) and treat every opponent the same,” Calhoun said. “I’m just glad. Will Dunn and Jacori Owens I thought played really well. Shemar got to play a little bit with that ankle, and we got everybody involved. Everybody played.”
The game also marked an opportunity for the Penguins to even hit the hardwood at all before traveling to Oakland on Saturday for a mammoth matchup with the Golden Grizzlies. YSU last played Dec. 22 at WVU, and returned to practice Sunday night.
Getting some game experience ahead of that matchup is critical, according to Calhoun and senior forward Michael Akuchie.
Akuchie said, “Even for myself, it’s a confidence booster just seeing the ball go into the net and seeing some other guys have success — seeing the ball go down, getting rebounds, getting to the free throw line and playing more minutes than they might usually play. I think it’s great for everyone including myself.”
“I don’t think you can simulate a game,” Calhoun added. “I think that’s the biggest thing, you know, you can practice all you want, but the reality is the kids want to play games, kids want to be happy, kids want to win. They want to get up and down, and that’s what this game was.”
These last-minute schedule changes may become more commonplace in the coming weeks as the omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to surge.
Of staying ready no matter what happens to the schedule, Akuchie said, “Just control what we can control. Frustration is going to happen. You prepare for something the whole week and then something happens, (so) just doing what we can, working on ourselves, continuing to get better. Regardless of who we play, just making sure we go in with confidence and we don’t underestimate whoever we play.”
So far, Akuchie says the team has been “locked in” since its return from the holiday break. That fact will be critical as YSU prepares for Saturday’s test at Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies sit at 7-4 overall and 2-0 in Horizon League play, and feature an impressive 56-55 win at Oklahoma State back on Nov. 12.
“We know we’re going to have our hands full on Saturday,” Calhoun said. “We’re going to watch the women’s game (this afternoon), we’re going to practice after them, practice early Friday and play just an unbelievable team in Oakland.”