By Rick Henneman
The Youngstown State University women’s basketball team (9-20, 5-13 Horizon League) will enter the Horizon League Tournament as the eighth seed after an 83-67 loss against the University of Detroit Mercy on Feb. 25.
Despite the loss on Saturday, YSU head coach John Barnes entered his weekly press conference with a new sense of optimism.
“It’s a new season,” Barnes said. “We’re excited about the tournament at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. We can put the regular season behind us. We will focus on the first round of the Horizon League Tournament and get fired up for that.”
YSU has stepped up against some of the league’s best teams. At times this season, YSU has played tough games against second-ranked Wright State University. Barnes knows that some teams would prefer not to see YSU in the tournament.
“I know there are some coaches who don’t want to play us,” Barnes said. “It is matchups. I think we are going to compete really hard and bring the games down to the wire. At tournament time, you never know what plays that players will step up and make to pull off big upsets.”
The Penguins will play its first round game against ninth-seeded Valparaiso University (9-21, 5-13 HL) on Friday. YSU split the season series against the Crusaders, winning 76-70 at home but losing 60-77 on the road. Freshman of the Year candidate Mary Dunn was out with an injury for the loss at Valparaiso.
Valpo junior Dani Franklin is second in the league with 18.1 points per game. She averaged 11.5 points against the Penguins this year. YSU will hope that Dunn’s presence in the line-up will minimize the damage from Valparaiso’s Amber Lindfors who had 22 points against the Penguins in her absence. Lindfors also leads the league in blocked shots with 65.
“I expect them to do what they did at their place,” YSU guard Melinda Trimmer said about Valpo. “They did a really good job of pushing the ball and they are probably going to try to look to get it to the post because they are pretty tall.”
Trimmer also said that Valpo will look to get the ball into the hands of sophomore Meredith Hamlet who had 29 points against the Penguins in the Beeghly Center.
Guard Alison Smolinski leads the Penguins with 12.3 points per game this season and also leads the Horizon League with 61 threes in conference play. Barnes said that her play is crucial to YSU’s success.
“Alison is huge; she has literally carried us for five weeks,” Barnes said. “This past weekend, she struggled shooting and it’s tough on our offense. You can’t count on shooting night in and night out. That’s why your defense has to be good and our defense has struggled this year.”
Trimmer agreed with Barnes, saying that Smolinski is “everything” and that she is blessed to play with her.
The Penguins have dealt with injuries throughout the season and the back-to-back nature of tournament play will test the depth of YSU’s roster.
“In our situation, we would play two games and then have a day off,” Barnes said about the tournament format. “It’s good for us in a sense that we would have a day off but it’s tough because we would have to play the top-seed (University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) in the second round. We have struggled against them this year. We have to put all our eggs in the Valpo basket first because it’s going to take everything we have to beat them.”
YSU will tip-off against Valparaiso on Friday at 2:30 p.m. If YSU defeats Valpo, it will move on to face Green Bay on Saturday at 11:30 a.m.