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Published: Monday, 3/1/2010

Rockets, Cullop share faith in each other, win

Tricia Cullop walked into a team meeting in April of 2008, a new basketball coach inheriting a program with its head down after five consecutive losing seasons, a new coach looking at a sea of faces she hadn't recruited, who didn't know her, who she could only hope were enthused to start over.

On Saturday, the Toledo women won the Mid-American Conference's West Division title. The Rockets beat Ball State 62-48 after pregame ceremonies saluting seniors Allie Clifton, Lisa Johnson, and Tanika Mays.

There are any number of reasons UT has won 40 of 59 games since Cullop arrived, including a 23-8 mark in MAC play.

"In our first meeting, that first day, those three asked only one question," Cullop recalled. "They said, 'What do we have to do to win?' Period. And for two years, they've done everything they possibly could to see it happen. They've been a joy to coach."

Sometimes, new coaches and old players are oil and water. They can't wait to be rid of one another.

Cullop said she ran into some of that when she got her first head coaching job at Evansville University in 2000. She learned there has to be give and take from both sides, so when she arrived at UT she embraced the players who were already there.

"There's not a lot of conflict on this team," said Johnson, who prepped at Northview. "I think all the players were open-minded from the start. We'd been through two losing seasons, and we needed something new."

Mays, a transfer who sat out the season before the coaching change, added: "Coach Cullop had to believe in us and we had to believe in her. From the first day she walked in, never once has she made us doubt ourselves."

Both sides had needs. It has been a pretty good marriage.

The Rockets are 22-6, 12-3 in the MAC, and this is like the old days when championships seemed like a rite of winter and games marched into spring.

"It's been a long time since we hung a banner," Johnson said. "We bought into what coach wanted because we knew we could do this."

Both of UT's basketball programs made coaching changes two years ago. The results have been dramatically different. One reason can probably be spelled out in the Senior Day ceremonies held/not held before each game of Saturday's doubleheader at Savage Arena.

More than 4,300 fans at the women's game saluted three players who have combined for 2,206 career points and 1,315 career rebounds.

A smaller men's crowd honored, um, well, nobody. There's not a senior to be found. Heck, if the men had celebrated Junior Night it would have taken about 30 seconds.

The women, meanwhile, hope there are plenty more senior - with a small "s" - nights for this team. They have

another regular-season game, then potentially three MAC tournament starts, then maybe an invitation to something even bigger and better.

"We're not done," Mays said. "I mean, I'm going to miss playing in front of these fans. But there's so much more we can do."

Cullop is quick to admit she inherited some mature and talented players from her predecessor.

"Mark Ehlen did a great job of getting these kids here," she said. "I've been the benefactor."

True, but the three now-seniors needed a fresh start. And Cullop needed them.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398.



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