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Published: Monday, 1/9/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

COMMENTARY

UT's Cullop on the mark with strategy

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Since most fans are not experts, coaching can often pass unobserved. But Tricia Cullop's strategy down the stretch Sunday against Central Michigan was transparent and carried out repeatedly in full view of the 3,762 raucous partisans at Savage Arena.

On every stoppage in play, depending on whether Toledo's women were going to be on offense or defense, either Haylie Lynn would replace Inma Zanoguera (offense) or Zanoguera would sub for Lynn (defense).

With less than one minute to play and UT scrapping to protect a 54-53 lead, it was Zanoguera, a 5-foot-10 freshman from Spain, on the floor as CMU senior Skylar Miller drove the lane. Zanoguera put a body on her, bumped her, harassed her, flustered her, and gave no ground as Miller eventually dribbled the ball off her foot and out of bounds for a turnover.

The horn sounded -- Lynn in; Zanoguera out.

Twenty seconds later, Lynn launched a 3-point shot so pure that the twine barely rippled as it passed through for a 57-53 lead with 29 seconds left.

Sometimes things don't work out, but sometimes they do, and that was as good an explanation as any as to how the Rockets, who were not the most athletically talented team in the arena, proved to be the winning team by a 58-53 score.

After trailing by as many as 13 points in the first half and still down by 10 with 15:00 to play, Toledo's players understood that the only way they had a chance to win was by defending and rebounding and chipping away.

It wasn't easy. Central Michigan has plucked some dandy talent in its last two recruiting classes, and the Chips' starting lineup against UT was made up of three freshmen and two sophomores, most of them long and lanky.

The best, a 6-foot frosh named Crystal Bradford, may be the most athletic women's basketball player ever in the Mid-American Conference. CMU entered Sunday's game averaging 72.6 points, and Bradford, who is listed as a guard but plays whatever and wherever she wants, was shooting 43 percent as the team's leading scorer.

With 10 1/2 minutes left in the game, Bradford had made 11 of 21 shots and had 23 points. When the final buzzer sounded, Bradford had made 11 of 26 shots and had 23 points.

Credit Yolanda Richardson, who had four blocked shots and altered a bunch more; Lecretia Smith, who came up big at both ends, and Zanoguera for leading the defensive charge.

"At halftime we talked about reaching deep down inside and finding some more," Cullop said. "We challenged them to play [man-to-man] without much help, to get in a stance and get it done. And I thought our defense really gutted it out. Bradford is a tremendous freshman, and she's one we did have to give help against. When we needed to lock down and not give her a layup, we did it.

"One reason we recruited [Zanoguera] was her fantastic defensive ability. She can guard about any position and can do so much moving laterally. So having her in there on defensive possessions was huge. Plus, it gave Haylie some rest and some legs, and she was still fresh at the end to hit that shot. Neither hung their head coming out. They were cheering each other on."

At the end, the big crowd was cheering another Rocket victory as UT, which lost its MAC opener last week and faces another dogfight on Wednesday against Eastern Michigan, dodged a bullet against a pretty good, albeit young and undisciplined, team.

A big part of it was Toledo's Cullop having something extra in the chamber -- one round for offense, one round for defense.

It was a bull's-eye.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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