Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
D.J. Cole became the third different hero for Youngstown State against Loyola this season with a driving layup in the final seconds. The Penguins will move on to face Wright State in the second round.
When one star is missing the other players have to step up. That is the situation that Youngstown State found itself in again Tuesday night, and finally, the string of embarrassing conference losses came to an end.
In their fourth game without all-conference Kendrick Perry -- darn knee injuries -- the Penguins battled to take and hold a lead against Loyola until the final seconds.
That is when D.J. Cole broke down his defender off the dribble and made his reaching layup with just two seconds on the clock. The desperation heave by Loyola missed, and Youngstown State will advance to play Wright State with a 62-60 win in the first round of the Horizon League Tournament.
It almost didn't get to that point, the third time this season that the Penguins have pulled out a victory late against the Ramblers. Christian Thomas looked like he would be unstoppable in the first half, and Ben Averkamp, himself back for only the second game since a concussion kept him on the bench for close to a month, took full advantage of some good looks inside.
Yet Damian Eargle came alive in the second half on the defensive end. He finished with seven blocks and helped hold Thomas to just four points, twelve minutes apart after the break. This is exactly why Eargle earned the Defensive Player of the Year nod, his ability to shut down the opposition's hottest scorer when it matters.
And Youngstown needed time to adjust to playing without Perry. It didn't help that they had been up against three of the top four teams in the conference during the stretch without him.
Now, a win by two points isn't exactly going to inspire confidence going into Friday night's second round game. Wright State did just whup the Penguins by 27 points. It is going to take more than a D.J. Cole scoop to make up that deficit.
As for Loyola, there is a lot of wondering what could have been this season. Injuries and youth definitely derailed what looked to be a promising season after opening the conference slate with a win against the eventual regular season champion Valparaiso. A healthy Averkamp, a full season from Cully Payne, or Joe Crisman, maybe this year ends differently.
Tonight it ended with the scoop drive, and another heartbreaking loss to Youngstown State.