YOUNGSTOWN — The moment wasn’t too big for Lexi Wagner.
In a high-stakes Horizon League battle with Cleveland State that featured more fouls by each team than made field goals, the redshirt sophomore provided the spark Youngstown State needed, drilling five 3-pointers on six first-half attempts and scoring a career-high 19 points as the Penguins fended off the Vikings, 70-59.
YSU (12-1, 6-0) and CSU (9-3, 4-2) entered the game atop the conference standings at first and second, respectively. The win now gives YSU a two-game cushion over the rest of the Horizon.
“We made a huge statement. I think we still have a long way to go, and I think people are still underestimating us, and I think that’s good,” said guard Megan Callahan, who scored 14 points in the win. “We’re coming every day, we’re practicing hard and we’re going to continue to make a statement and prove ourselves.”
Callahan and Wagner sparked YSU’s rally after the Penguins fell behind 13-4 early, as the duo hit back-to-back 3-pointers to close the gap to 13-12 to end the first quarter.
Then in the second, Wagner exploded.
With YSU trailing 22-21, Wagner scored 14 of YSU’s next 16 points on a trio of treys and a pair of free throws as the Penguins mounted a 37-27 lead before taking a 39-30 advantage into halftime. YSU never trailed the rest of the night.
“It was a great spark when she came in,” Callahan said, later adding, “That just brings so much energy and such positive energy to our team, and I think at that point it was a turning point.”
Indeed, it proved critical in YSU’s efforts to crack the 2-3 zone CSU deployed. The Penguins initially struggled to find rhythm, but started attacking it better in the second quarter.
Of that, Wagner said, “Just dribbling into seams and making two guard one, just kind of simple basketball. It’s easy when it’s simple, and it’s fun when it’s simple. So we just try to make a simple play, simple pass and get wide-open shots.”
YSU coach John Barnes added, “You have to be ready, and you have to get (your shot) off quick or you’re not getting it off. I think (Wagner) has one of our quickest releases. I thought our other players did a good job of getting into the gaps and into the paint and kicking to her, and she was ready.”
And where Wagner left off, Callahan and Lilly Ritz picked up. Callahan scored eight points in the second half, while Ritz provided another steady performance with 20 points and 14 rebounds.
The Penguins also turned in another critical defensive effort, holding the Vikings to a 30.5 percent performance from the field (18-of-59). CSU, which has lost three consecutive games, also hit just five of its 21 shots from beyond the arc.
Destiny Leo, who entered the contest as the Horizon League’s leading scorer at 23 points per game, was kept to 16, nine of which came at the charity stripe, and shot just 3-of-10 from the floor thanks to the efforts of Mady Aulbach.
“Mady’s always locked in. … It’s great having a player like her,” Callahan said. “She knows she’s going to be guarding the (opposing team’s) best player, and she has to be locked in the whole game, chasing through screens. She’s going to be in there for about 30 minutes guarding their best player, and that’s not an easy job.”
The game also was perhaps YSU’s most physical test to date. The teams were whistled for a combined 46 personal fouls (not counting a pair of technicals called in the game), and 55 free throws were taken. Only 37 field goals were made. At one point, Ritz had to exit with a bloody nose, but later returned.
“Both sides were getting after it and doing the best they could,” Barnes said. “It was a little scary when Lilly went out. I mean it wasn’t just dripping; she was pouring. So that was scary, but Jen, our trainer, got it stopped up and we got her back in there and found a way to win.”
The Penguins are off until Friday, when they begin a road trip that starts with Wright State. They’ll then visit Northern Kentucky on Sunday.