The Horizon League is probably the most unrecognized conference in NCAA-DI basketball. UIC was YSU’s opponent on this holiday evening, and UIC had just beaten then-ranked #12 Illinois a couple of games back. The Horizon League is no slouch, ask Duke. As the conference rises in prominence, Youngstown State is trying to evolve with it. The Penguins had not won a conference game in their last 13 chances. Throw out the records and chalk up a conference win for the Penguins, 71-69, over UIC.
The first half featured good shooting by both squads. Youngstown State had a lead as big as nine points in that first half, but UIC marched right back into things before half and the Penguins only lead 34-32 at intermission. The story in the first half was three-pointers. Both teams shot over 40 percent with YSU connecting on 7-17 and UIC nailing 4-7.
Ashen Ward had a career best night for the Penguins. Ward was Mr. Instant in the first half connecting on 4-6 threes and finished the half with 14 points on his way to a career-high in points. Ward hit another three in the opening minutes of the second half, he was on fire. With 16:24 left in the game, UIC nabbed the lead, 40-39, when Robo Kreps hit a free throw to complete a three point play. Ward responded with a deuce to give YSU the lead back on their next possession.
With YSU trailing 46-43, DuShawn Brooks hit a runner from the right side of the key coming in to cut UIC’s lead to one point. Tre Brewer hit a finger roll to put YSU back up by one with just over twelve minutes to go in the game. YSU was not getting many inside chances and had only attempted one free throw up to the 11:32 mark when Vytas Sulskis hit a pair to put YSU ahead, 49-47.
With YSU ahead 57-53 with UIC’s Paul Carter hit a runner from the left side and was fouled by Sulskis. Carter hit the free throw to complete the old-school three and the game was tied again with 8:18. Ashen Ward then hit his sixth and seventh threes of the game to push YSU’s lead to 63-58. With 3:24 left in the game, and YSU holding a very slim lead of 65-64, Brewer gathered an offensive rebound and was fouled trying to put it back. Brewer was unable to connect with either charity toss and UIC ended up taking a two point lead when Carter was fouled while shooting a three.
With 1:41 left in the game, YSU trailed 67-65. Sulskis hit a spinning layup to tie things up at the 1:31 mark. UIC could not score on their end and with less than a minute to go and the score tied at 67 apiece, Ward was fouled and hit one of two to put the Penguins up a point at 68-67 with 41.3 seconds remaining. Carter hit a 15-foot jumper with 24 seconds left to put UIC back up by one in this see-saw battle.
Sulskis was fouled, a blessing for YSU fans because he nails his free throws, hit a pair to give YSU a 70-69 lead with 15.9 seconds to go in the game. Kreps drove the hoop but threw up a wild prayer that barely drew iron. Blake Allen hauled in the rebound with 2.9 seconds to go and was immediately fouled and put to the line. Allen hit one of two to put the Penguins ahead 71-69 with 2.2 seconds to go. UIC inbounded the ball but could not get better than a three-quarter court look and YSU held on for the dramatic win, 71-69.
Youngstown State (6-6, 1-2) was led by Ward, who posted a career-high with 26 points. Ward answered every time the UIC seemed to gain momentum by hitting a huge bucket. Ward finished the game 9-14 from the floor and 7-10 from three-point land.
UIC (5-9, 0-2) got 19 points from Carter who did all he could to keep the Flames in the game down the stretch.
After the game, Jerry Slocum commented on his team’s big conference win. ”We got a huge boost from our bench tonight. Ash [Ashen Ward] stepped up and hit some big baskets. They were keeping a close eye on Vytas [Sulskis] and that freed Ash up to get some good looks. We have been asking Ashen to do a little more offensively and to take more shots. The whole team battled hard and we came out with a big win.”
Ward commented on his holiday success. ”We took some extra shooting practice and it paid off tonight. Give credit to our bench, they played well and everyone played hard.”