Women's Basketball Begins 2017-18 Season Friday at Pitt

Indiya Benjamin (Photo by Courtney Metzger, Hawaii Media Source)
Indiya Benjamin (Photo by Courtney Metzger, Hawaii Media Source)

Scouting Report

  • Youngstown State begins its 43rd season of women's basketball on Friday at Pittsburgh on Friday. Tipoff at the Petersen Events Center is set for 7 p.m., and the game will be broadcast live on the ACC Network Extra, WatchESPN, 570 WKBN and iHeartRadio.
  • The Penguins are hungry to get back to their winning ways after enduring an injury-plagued 2016-17 season that ended with a 9-21 record and a first-round loss in the Horizon League Tournament. In each of the previous two seasons, YSU won 21 games and advanced to play in a postseason tournament.
  • YSU returns three players – Indiya Benjamin, Mary Dunn and Alison Smolinski – who averaged more than 11 points last season, and it also welcomes back two players – Nikki Arbanas and Sarah Cash – who averaged more than 11 points in 2015-16. Arbanas missed all of last season with a knee injury, and Cash was limited the first seven games and missed the final 23 contests of 2016-17.
  • This is the first time in program history that the Penguins enter a season with five players who have averaged double figures previously.
  • YSU has led the Horizon League in 3-pointers per game in each of the last three seasons, and it has had the individual leaders in the last two seasons in Arbanas (89 in 2015-16) and Smolinski (85 in 2016-17). YSU is one of three schools in the country to have two players on its roster that have made at least 85 3-pointers in a season.
  • Benjamin enters her senior year with 95 career starts at point guard and eying two school records. She is 41 3-pointers from the career mark of 199, and she is 120 assists shy of the current record of 573. Benjamin also needs just 28 points to reach 1,000 for her career.

Weekly Press Conference

Previewing Pitt

A Win Would...

  • Give YSU a win its season opener for the fourth time in the last six seasons.
  • Be YSU's first victory over a Power Five conference opponent since its win at Pitt on Nov. 9, 2012.

Scouting Pitt

  • Pitt has added six newcomers – five true freshmen and NJCAA All-America Honorable Mention forward Danielle Garven – to last year's squad that went 13-17 overall and 4-12 in ACC play.
  • Pitt's top two scorers from a year ago are gone, and forward Kalista Walters is the top returning scorer at 7.5 points per game. Pitt returns junior forward Yacine Diop, who averaged 10.4 points as a sophomore before missing last season with a leg injury.

Last Season at Pitt

  • YSU trimmed a 22-point deficit down to 11 in the fourth period before falling 63-50 on Nov. 14, 2016, at Pittsburgh.
  • The Penguins led 16-12 in the first period before Pitt scored the final 10 points of the quarter. The Panthers led 52-32 heading into the fourth before YSU scored seven straight points and cut the lead to 11 with 6:05 left. The Penguins missed their next eight shots.

On This Date

  • Youngstown State lost its only other game played on Nov. 10. The Penguins dropped the 2006-07 season opener at Beeghly Center to Cincinnati 85-78.

Game Notes

YSU in Season Opener

  • Youngstown State is 23-19 all time in season openers heading into Friday's contest at Pittsburgh. The Penguins are 10-6 when they open a season at home and 13-13 when opening on the road.
  • YSU won 20 of its first 30 openers before dropping seven straight from 2005 to 2011. A 64-50 win over Pittsburgh to start the 2012-13 season ended the skid. YSU lost 77-64 at home to American to begin 2016-17.

Something to Prove After Injury-Plagued 2016-17

  • Youngstown State is out to prove that last season's 9-21 record is an outlier and playing in the postseason is the norm. Prior to last season, the Penguins had won at least 15 games in four straight seasons and earned postseason berths in 2013, 2014 and 2016.
  • Injuries severely hampered the Penguins last season. Nikki Arbanas, the team's top perimeter defender and top returning 3-point shooter, tore her ACL on the first day of fall practice. Sarah Cash, the top interior defender and a preseason first-team all-conference pick, was bothered by a knee injury for the first four weeks and was shut down for the final 23 games. Additionally, fifth-year Kelsea Newman tore her ACL in the third quarter of the first game. Arbanas, Cash and Newman combined for 1,083 points and 31.9 points per game the previous year.
  • As a result of those three significant injuries and the normal bumps and bruises that come and go throughout a season, YSU used 15 different starting lineups in 2016-17 and had 13 different players start at least once.

Plenty of Reasons for Optimism

  • Most teams enter a new season with optimism that freshmen and transfers will be impact players. YSU has that, and it gets back 2015-16 Second-Team All-Horizon League selection Sarah Cash and the conference's top 3-point shooter from two years ago in Nikki Arbanas. Cash missed the final 23 games of last season, and Arbanas was out the entire year with knee injuries.
  • The return of Arbanas and Cash combined with several players emerging last season in their absence gives the Penguins perhaps their deepest squad in recent memory.
  • For the first time in program history, YSU has five returning players who have averaged at least 10 points per game in a season. Alison Smolinski led the team with 12.5 ppg last season, Indiya Benjamin averaged 11.6 ppg and Mary Dunn averaged 11.3. Cash and Arbanas were the top two scorers in 2015-16, averaging 14.1 points and 11.3 points respectively. Additionally, junior transfer Josie Fisher averaged 10.4 points as a freshman at Fort Wayne.
  • To further demonstrate YSU's balance on offense, eight different Penguins have scored at least 20 points in a game in their careers – Arbanas, Benjamin, Morgan Brunner, Cash, Dunn, Fisher, Morgan Olson and Smolinski.

Benjamin Begins Fourth Year as Starting PG

  • Indiya Benjamin will be YSU's starting point guard for the fourth straight season in 2017-18, and her career numbers are starting to approach the program's most elite guards. Benjamin ranks seventh in YSU history with 453 career assists, and she is sixth with 158 career 3-pointers. She is 120 assists shy of YSU's all-time assists record and 41 behind the record for 3-pointers. Additionally, her 1.68 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks second in school history.
  • Nearing 1,000 Points: Benjamin is 28 points shy of becoming the 19th player in program history to score 1,000 career points. Benjamin would become one of just five Penguins to have 1,000 career points and 450 career assists. Of that group, only Benjamin and Dianne Rappach have also made at least 150 career 3-pointers.
  • Horizon's Assists Leader: Benjamin led the Horizon League with 5.6 assists per game last season. She also led the conference with 5.0 per contest in 2015-16, making her the first player to lead the league in back-to-back seasons in 13 years. Benjamin is one of just four players in Horizon League history to lead the league in assists per game in consecutive seasons.

Posts Will Play Big Role Again

  • Youngstown State has had one of the top posts in the Horizon League for eight straight seasons. Starting with Brandi Brown being named to the league's all-freshman team  in 2009-10, the Penguins have had a post earn postseason recognition for eight straight seasons.
  • Last season, Mary Dunn was named the Horizon League Freshman of the Year after leading all conference freshmen in scoring (11.3 ppg) and field-goal percentage (.514). She scored in double figures 17 times and was named the conference freshman of the week four times.
  • Sarah Cash, a second-team pick two years ago and a preseason first-team selection last year, returns after missing the final 23 games of 2016-17. She led YSU with 14.1 points per game and ranked fourth in the country in field-goal percentage (.600) as a sophomore in 2015-16.
  • Freshman Anne Secrest is also expected to see significant playing time.
  • Prior to guard Alison Smolinski leading the team with 12.5 points per game last season, a post had been YSU's top scorer for eight straight years.

3-Point Shooting Prowess

  • YSU led the Horizon League with 8.5 3-pointers per game last season. It was the third straight season that the Penguins led the conference, and they ranked 15th in the country in the category.
  • YSU is one of 16 teams in the country that has made at least 200 3-pointers in each of the last seven seasons. The Penguins have averaged 254 3s per season since the start of 2010-11, and they've made at least 250 in five of the last six campaigns. YSU set school records with 299 makes and 936 attempts in 2015-16. Youngstown State had not made 200 3s in any season prior to 2010-11.
  • Three Penguins could break the program record for career 3-pointers made this season. Indiya Benjamin is 41 shy of Liz Hornberger's record of 1999, Nikki Arbanas is 55 back and Alison Smolinski needs 71.
  • Arbanas and Smolinski could be one of the top 3-point shooting duos in the country. YSU, Idaho and Central Michigan are the only Division I teams that have two players who have each made at least 85 3s in a season. Arbanas made a school record 89 in 2015-16, and Smolinski sank 85 last year. Both of those totals led the Horizon League.

Offense Was In Full Gear Despite Injuries

  • Even with three of its top five scorers coming into the season out for the year with injuries, YSU averaged 67.5 points per game last year. That was a 2.2 point improvement from 2015-16 when the Penguins went 21-13 and advanced to the semifinals of the WBI postseason tournament. It was also the third-best scoring average by the program in the last 17 years.
  • Additionally, YSU had one of its five-best seasons in free-throw percentage, 3-pointers made an assist-to-turnover ratio. Plus, its 15.5 assists per game was the best average at YSU since 2004-05. YSU ranked 14th in the country last season in free-throw percentage, and it was 15th nationally in 3-pointers per game.

Last Season's Struggles

  • While the offense was still been able to flourish with YSU's young lineup last year, the lack of experience hurt the Penguins in three main areas: defense, rebounding and prevailing in close games. Guard Nikki Arbanas and forward Sarah Cash, players who were both out for the year with knee injuries, are arguably the Penguins' top two defenders.
  • YSU surrendered 74.3 points per game in 2016-17, which was 11.2 more than it did in 2015-16 and the second-most by the program in 14 years. YSU held teams to 63.1 points per game in 2015-16 and 63 points the year prior. Opponents shot 43.7 percent, which was the highest in six years.
  • YSU was minus-7.6 in rebounding margin for the year and was minus-9.5 during conference play. The Penguins allowed 12.4 points per game on offensive rebounds.
  • The Penguins thrived in close games in 2015-16, going 7-1 in games decided by five points or fewer. YSU was 2-6 in such games in 2016-17, and the score was within four points in the fourth period in eight of the Penguins' 13 losses in league play.

Up Next

  • Youngstown State will play host to Kent State in its Beeghly Center opener on Tuesday at 5:15 p.m. The game will be the first of four home doubleheaders with the men's team this season.