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Published: Saturday, 3/16/2013

Rockets left to hope for NCAA bid

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

CLEVELAND — Toledo’s loss on Friday in the semifinal round of the MAC women’s tournament wasn’t the end of the line.

We’ll soon learn if it was the end of the dream.

UT’s senior class is 105-30 after a 66-61 loss to Central Michigan. It has won four consecutive MAC division crowns and two regular-season titles. But it has never won the final game here at Quicken Loans Arena and, thus, has never played in an NCAA tournament.

Maybe that still will change. History says it is unlikely.

Only twice have MAC teams received at-large bids to the NCAA field. That mid-major love you see now and then from the men’s selection committee doesn’t extend quite so far into the women’s game.

Toledo entered with a No. 42 Rating Percentage Index, which isn’t bad, but with a strength of schedule that barely registered. Only one other MAC team owned a top-70 RPI and that was CMU, which somehow underachieved to the tune of being the No. 4 seed in the tournament.

That put the Chips and Rockets on a collision course short of the championship game and maybe the NCAA selection committee will be turned off by UT losing when it did. Or those folks could look at it the way the rest of us do, which was to say the title game was actually contested in the semifinals.

“In my opinion, it was like a championship game because of the caliber of teams,” said UT coach Tricia Cullop. “We lost to the [next] best RPI team in the league on a neutral floor. I would hope we’d get attention for an at-large berth.”

Unfortunately, for the Rockets, they are reduced to hoping.

And they have no one to blame but themselves.

Toledo’s first-half defense was full of holes. Central Michigan made its first four shots, all 3-pointers, and shot 50 percent both overall and from beyond the arc while rolling to a 40-30 lead at the break. That’s 40 points in one half against a UT team that, on average, allowed 48.6 points a conference GAME during the regular season.

“It felt like at the beginning they could throw half-court shots in,” said UT guard Naama Shafir. “All we could do was keep playing our game. It wasn’t over. We just had to keep fighting and coming back.”

And, by golly, they nearly did. Toledo’s only lead was 2-0 and they chased from behind the rest of the game, always an exhausting proposition. But with 34 seconds to play, after a bucket by Lecretia Smith pulled the Rockets within 62-61 and before Central could execute the ensuing inbounds pass, Andola Dortch drew an elbow and a foul and UT got the ball back.

The Rockets missed their last three attempts from the field, though, and that also followed a game-long theme.

Seniors Shafir and Yolanda Richardson were a combined 12 of 35 from the field. Poor Yo. You could put her on an icy blacktop court, blindfold her, tie her left hand behind her back, spin her around until she was dizzy, and she’d still not miss as many layups, hooks, and 3-foot jumpers as she did Friday.

But it happens. Sometimes the shots don’t fall. Sometimes the best team doesn’t win. Sometimes it doesn’t matter.

But it is mid-March now and everything matters, especially for mid-majors that have no NCAA guarantees beyond winning their conference tournament.

When it doesn’t happen, all that’s left is hope.

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



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