For YSU women, WNIT carries bigger challenge but more prestige


By Joe Scalzo

scalzo@vindy.com

YOUNGSTOWN

Over the past few days, as the Youngstown State women’s basketball team debated whether to accept an invitation to the WBI or shoot for the WNIT, the Penguins’ two seniors, Heidi Schlegel and Latisha Walker, made it very clear what they wanted.

“Heidi and Tish were kind of the driving force,” Penguins coach John Barnes said. “If we weren’t in the NCAAs [tournament], they wanted to go to the WNIT and kind of finish the season strong.”

This strategy came with a couple risks.

One, the WNIT bid was no sure thing. YSU had automatically qualified for the tournament two years ago thanks to a second-place finish in the Horizon League standings, but the Penguins had finished fourth this year, meaning they’d have to be chosen as an at-large team. And the WNIT had never chosen an at-large Horizon League team since it began awarding automatic bids to each conference in 2007.

Two, the WNIT was a much tougher tournament. While a Horizon League team had won the WBI each of the last two years — Detroit in 2013 and UIC in 2014 — no Horizon team has even advanced to the WNIT championship game since the tournament began in 1998. YSU had managed to win its first game two years ago, but was no match for Toledo in the second round, losing 61-43.

Still, YSU’s coaches and administrators went ahead with their bid, believing YSU’s strong finish (the Penguins won six of their last nine and nearly upset conference champion Green Bay in the tournament semifinals) and its non-conference schedule (YSU went 12-2, including a loss to NCAA qualifier Pitt) would be enough, even if they risked coming away with nothing.

The WNIT was communicating with YSU in the days leading up to the selection show, but the Penguins didn’t find out until just before 8:30 p.m. Even better, they will host Thursday’s game, albeit against an opponent, Duquesne, that beat Pitt by 10 points and was on the NCAA tournament bubble.

“The WNIT is definitely a more prestigious tournament at this time,” Barnes said. “There’s Big Ten schools, ACC schools, SEC schools, so we knew whoever we drew was going to be a challenge, but we’re excited about the challenge.”

Cleveland State also got an at-large bid, while Wright State earned the conference’s automatic berth by finishing second to Green Bay during the regular season. (The Raiders also lost to the Phoenix in overtime of the tournament final.)

It will be just the second postseason tournament for YSU since it advanced to the NCAA tournament for the third and final time in 1999-2000.

“All of these experiences are great for the future,” Barnes said. “Making the postseason twice in the last three years is obviously exciting and it’s great for our freshmen to get these kinds of experiences. You could see how much they grew just throughout the Green Bay game.

“If we can have a learning experience like that in the WNIT, it’s only going to help us.”

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