CLEVELAND -- Much has been chronicled about Andola Dortch's play at the defensive end of a basketball court, but University of Toledo coach Tricia Cullop put it in perfect perspective Thursday afternoon.
"I'd like to see a list of players who have had surgery on both ACLs and then won defensive player of the year honors in their conference," Cullop said. "I bet it's a short list."
I bet she's right, even in a day and age when knee surgery has become about as routine as clipping your toenails.
Dortch blew the ligament in one knee before the start of her freshman season and took a medical redshirt. During offseason workouts, she tore the same ligament in her other knee and underwent surgery again.
She was back to speed by the winter of 2010-11 and was named UT's best defender. This season she was voted the MAC's top defender.
It's a nice title to own. It speaks of character and passion, of attention to detail, of grit and hard work, of doing the little things that create big wins.
"I'm OK with being known as a defensive player," Dortch said at Quicken Loans Arena. "I pride myself on defense. It's what wins games and championships."
Defense certainly played a large role, at least during the second half, in Thursday's 72-62 win over Northern Illinois, and it's why the Rockets are still thinking championship entering Friday's semifinal round.
But having said all that, Dortch's defense on this occasion was secondary to her offense. The 5-foot-7 sophomore scored 24 points and dished out eight assists. It was another example of just how complete a player she has become.
After trailing by as many as 10 points in the first half, Dortch gave the Rockets their first lead at 46-44 on a jump shot. She fed Lecretia Smith for a layup that made it 48-44 and then scored two more baskets on baseline drives to make it 52-44.
The coup de grace came with about five minutes to play when Dortch inbounded a pass to herself, off the NIU defender's back, was fouled on a layup attempt, and made two free throws for a 10-point lead.
"I was taught a long, long time ago that if the player defending the inbounds turns her back and I have space, to try it and get an easy basket," Dortch said.
She got a lot of easy ones on open looks, which didn't surprise Cullop.
"She drives so well that defenses have been sagging to take the drive away more so than the shot," UT's coach said. "So we've been encouraging her to shoot more and ran her off of some screens to get her some looks."
Dortch didn't pass up many of the opportunities, launching 17 shots, including four 3-pointers.
It might all have been wasted had UT not gotten serious on defense.
In two regular-season wins over Northern Illinois, the Rockets held the Huskies to 47 and 39 points. This time, NIU shot 58 percent from the field and scored 40 points -- in the first half.
Toledo's post play was slow and sloppy, UT was getting manhandled on the boards, and NIU was 4-of-6 on 3-point tries.
"It was a wake-up call," Dortch said.
In the second half, the Rockets awakened and NIU scored just four points in the first 13-plus minutes of the second half.
With Dortch clamping down on the perimeter, the Huskies made just two of 11 tries from 3-point land after halftime.
Afterward, she was reminded of those two knee surgeries in the not-so-long-ago.
"You can't let anything stop you from doing what you love to do," Dortch said. "And I love playing basketball."
At both ends of the court.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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