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Toledo women top Saint Francis (Pa.) in season opener

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Toledo's Kaayla McIntyre (15), shown in a game against Northern Illinois last season, scored 17 points Friday to help the Rockets open the season with a 74-66 win over St. Francis (Pa.).

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On a night that began with members of the University of Toledo women’s basketball team receiving 2016-17 Mid-American Conference championship rings and seeing league championship and NCAA tournament banners unveiled, the Rockets took care of business as a new season began Friday at Savage Arena.

Toledo overcame a slow start and used a decisive 9-0 fourth-quarter run to pull away in a 74-66 victory against Saint Francis (Pa.) in the opening round of the Women’s NIT.

“We are very happy to get the win tonight, because we knew this was going to be a very difficult game,” UT coach Tricia Cullop said. “I have so much respect for their coach. Joe [Haigh] does a tremendous job. They are a difficult style to play against for your first game, because they are running and pressing and have an aggressive style. It makes it tough sometimes. I’m just really proud of our players. I thought we got good energy from the bench.”

Toledo moves on to the second round of the WNIT and will play Tuesday at Louisville.

Toledo took over the lead in the second half, but in the fourth quarter, the Rockets advantage was cut to 64-61 after a 3-pointer by Haley Thomas.

But the big run ensued for Toledo, with Kaayla McIntyre hitting two baskets, Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott adding two fast-break layups, and Mariella Santucci making 1-of-2 from the foul line to give UT a 73-61 edge with 1:36 left in the game.

“We just took care of the basketball and executed to get better shots,” Cullop said of the late run. “There were a couple times we were able to run some sets and get some back-breaking looks. That’s when we really turned the corner.”

McIntyre led the Rockets with 17 points and 12 rebounds for her first career double-double. Bravo-Harriott added 14 points, and Mikaela Boyd scored 11.

For Saint Francis, Jessica Kovatch led the way with 21 points, while Ace Harrison chipped in with 16 points.

Toledo trailed for much of the first half, but ended the second quarter on a 9-1 run to cut the halftime deficit to 38-37.

During the run, Tanaya Beacham had a jumper and a layup, Jada Woody knocked down a 3, and Olivia Cunningham pulled up and made a fast-break jumper.

“It was big and I thought the person that really spearheaded it was Tanaya Beacham,” Cullop said. “In the short amount of time she played right before the half, she had six points and had great rebounds and talked on defense. I was so proud of her and I thought the second half, she gave us good minutes, too. It took a whole team to beat this team. They wore us down and had we not been able to go as deep as we did today, I don’t know if we would have won, because kids were getting really tired.”

Toledo struggled with free throws, making just 14-of-28, and turnovers (25), but was able to overcome that by forcing 30 turnovers and dominating in the paint (52-14) and on the fast break (12-0).

All in all, it was a night to remember for the Rockets, who had been eagerly awaiting their MAC championship rings.

“I think this was the day we have been waiting for,” McIntyre said. “I’ve just been anticipating this day so much, because I was excited about what we did last year. To get the rings before the game and to finally see what they looked like was amazing.”

Contact Brian Buckey at: bbuckey@theblade.com419-724-6110, or on Twitter @BrianBuckey.

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