YOUNGSTOWN — Make no mistake, Sunday’s matchup with IUPUI is among the biggest matchups Youngstown State women will have this season.
But before the Penguins (14-1, 8-0 Horizon League) get their shot at the league’s preseason favorite, they have business to take care of tonight against Illinois-Chicago (2-9, 1-5). That “one game at a time” mentality has been the mindset for YSU this season.
“Any given night, if you don’t come ready to play, you’re getting beat because this league is so good with so many good teams and coaches,” YSU coach John Barnes said. “We’re going to do everything we can to have the team ready (for UIC). We focus one game at a time. I don’t really even think about the next game until we get to it.”
The Flames enter on a four-game skid. Their lone wins are over Valparaiso on Nov. 23 and Detroit Mercy on Dec. 4. Of their league losses, four have been within 10 points — Purdue Fort Wayne (69-63), Cleveland State (74-64), Oakland (67-59) and Milwaukee (65-58).
YSU has plenty of familiarity with UIC, as the teams met four times a season ago, all within just over a week. The Penguins won each of those contests, but guard Mady Aulbach says they were challenged each time.
“I think every game we had with them last year was relatively close until the fourth quarter, and even then it was pretty close,” she said. “They’re definitely a team that’s capable of staying close and upsetting anyone, so I think (the key is) just us focusing on ourselves and playing good defense, not letting them score, and let the rest take care of itself.”
Jaida McCloud, a guard/forward hybrid, paces UIC with 17 points per game, the sixth-highest average in the conference. Behind her, Barnes highlights Kristian Young as “one of the best point guards in the league.” Young scores 9.3 points per game and augments it with 4.3 assists per game, the second-highest average behind YSU’s Chelsea Olson, who sits at 4.4 per game.
In addition, 3-point threat Keona Schneck scores 7.7 per game, and Tiana Jackson adds 7.8.
“They have some players around (McCloud and Young) that can make shots and defend. They pressure and get a lot of steals,” Barnes said.
Young and McCloud each average just under two steals per game.
And then after UIC, Sunday’s matchup looms large. YSU currently has a three-game cushion over IUPUI, who had to forfeit a pair of early-season Horizon League matchups due to COVID-19 protocols.
The Horizon’s top four teams secure first-round byes and a home quarterfinal game in the conference tournament, so Sunday presents an opportunity to further solidify that position for YSU and bury IUPUI into a four-game hole from first place.
The stakes are high, but Aulbach says the Penguins are approaching this with the same mindset they have each game this season. That said, she noted the Penguins are first focused on tonight’s matchup.
“It’s just take care of business like usual,” she said. “Like Coach Barnes mentioned, we try to take it one game at a time, so I don’t even really think we’re focused on Sunday yet.”
Though the focus is on UIC, Barnes mentioned an assistant has put together the IUPUI scouting report.
“We have one of our coaches working on the next game and getting the scouting report ready for the players, but I want the players and myself obviously to be all-in on the next game that we have.”
The Jaguars feature a pair of preseason Horizon League First-Team selections, including the preseason Horizon player of the year, Macee Williams. Her 18 points per game are fourth in the Horizon, and her 8.6 rebounds per game are third.
In addition to Williams, Rachel McLimore was named to the Preseason First Team and scores 12.2 points per game. She adds three assists per game. The Jags also feature a 3-point threat in Rachel Kent, who hits 2.2 per game.
Of the matchup, Barnes acknowledged, “We know how good IUPUI is and the challenge they’ll give us, but ultimately we’re focused on UIC right now.”