YOUNGSTOWN — YSU coach Jerrod Calhoun described it as a tale of two halves.
The Penguins were coming fresh off the heels of a victory on Thursday over first-place Wright State and they looked to pick up ground in the Horizon League standings on Saturday afternoon against second-place Northern Kentucky.
YSU is no stranger to participating in close games at the Beeghly Center, but they fell one shot short against the Norse in a 61-59 loss on the Penguins’ Senior Day.
“Got to give them credit, but we held a team to 61 points, I think that’s the frustrating part about it,” Calhoun said. “We didn’t make a lot of shots, but we scrapped, we clawed. I told the guys they reflected the city and they should keep their heads up high. You make a few more shots and you win that game.
“So, we’re not going to certainly sit around and sulk about it, we’re going to learn from it and we’re getting ready to get on the road here on Wednesday.”
The team’s two seniors started the scoring off for YSU, as Donel Cathcart III hit a 3-pointer during the Penguins’ first possession and then Devin Morgan hit a 3 himself to give YSU an early 6-0 lead, but Northern Kentucky quickly began to build a lead during the first half.
NKU went into halftime with a 34-20 lead, as YSU shot a poor 22.2 percent from the field during the first 20 minutes by going 6-for-27.
The second half became an uphill battle for the Penguins with NKU leading by as much as 16 points at one point, but YSU slowly chipped away. The deficit was cut to within single digits after a 3-pointer by Darius Quisenberry with 11:56 left in the game.
With 51 seconds remaining, Garrett Covington made a layup to make it a 61-57 game in favor of the Norse, and then added a pair of free throws after an NKU turnover to make it 61-59.
NKU’s Jalen Tate then commited an offensive foul to give YSU the ball with 10 seconds to go following a timeout. Quisenberry missed the potential game-winning 3-pointer, and YSU saw a three-game winning streak at home snapped.
Cathcart led the Penguins with 14 points.
“I feel like we got to put together 40 minutes,” he said. “We came out a little slow in the first half, in the second half we competed, we played the way that we should.”
He also said that games against NKU (21-8, 13-4) come down to defense, but Cathcart would like to see the Norse again.
“Hopefully we get to see them again,” he said. “I feel like it’s hard to beat a team three times, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”
YSU dropped to a tie for fourth place with UIC in the Horizon League behind third-place Green Bay. The Phoenix are one of the two teams left on YSU’s schedule going into the last week of the regular season.
Wright State and Northern Kentucky both clinched an automatic double-bye to the semifinals of the Horizon League tournament at Indianapolis.
“We have to do what we’re supposed to do,” Calhoun said. “Wright State and NKU did what they’re supposed to do throughout the course of the season. I totally agree with the Horizon League on the double-bye. That’s what should happen at this level, the best two teams should get an automatic bid to the conference tournament.
“There should be less of a chance for upsets. They earned that right, both teams have over 20 wins, it’s your full body of work.”
The third through six seeds host a first-round playoff game against the seven through 10 seeds, with the potential to host a second round game should they advance.
The Penguins (16-13, 9-7) are looking to bring playoff basketball back to Youngstown following a two-game road trip to Green Bay and Milwaukee this coming week.
Calhoun said that the team feeds off of the crowd’s energy inside the Beeghly Center.
“If we could have an environment like we saw here today, I mean, there’s a reason why we’re now (12-3) at home,” he said. “I thought it was going to be (13-2), probably should have been, but my hat goes off to everybody that comes to these games because they’re loud, they were all on their feet.
“Our marketing team is great, we got a lot of little kids in there, it’s bigger than ourselves. These programs are a platform to really bring people together, and I think that’s what we’ve tried to do everywhere we’ve been. I’ve been a part of two rebuilds now, and you do it with fans, you do it with the community involvement. You have to go out into the community and that’s what we’ve done, and now it shows.”