They came, 3,400 strong, to cheer the Toledo Rockets to another win, another step toward another WNIT championship.
Instead, before they left, they had to say good-bye.
And when it was over, so were the careers of five seniors who played such giant roles in 107 wins and four postseason appearances in as many years.
Yolanda Richardson, the hometown star, fouled out with 12 seconds left and got a standing ovation. Eight seconds later, coach Tricia Cullop sent co-captain Riley McCormick into the game while subbing for Naama Shafir, Lecretia Smith, and Kyle Baumgartner.
After the final horn, the Rockets lined up, arms around one another, for the alma mater and one last blast from the pep band, and they were stoic, maybe somber, but there were not a lot of tears. Cullop wouldn’t allow it.
“I wanted them to walk out with their heads high,” she said. “We walked off the court 29 times as winners. Not many teams can say that.”
They didn’t make 30 for some very simple reasons. Illinois’ extended 2-3 zone — constantly switching, double-teaming at every opportunity, swarming the passing lanes — created an incredible amount of havoc on the perimeter, and UT’s guards had a horrible night, both shooting and executing the offense.
Shafir walked into the media room after the game, picked up a box score, and just shook her head.
She was 4-of-21 from the field, had eight turnovers, and combined with perimeter players Andola Dortch and Inma Zanoguera for 14-of-50 shooting.
“We played hard, we wanted to win, but it wasn’t enough,” Shafir said. “The shots just didn’t fall … layups, anything.”
Richardson, on the other hand, made all six shots she tried, but was limited to 23 minutes because of foul trouble.
“You always know your time will come to an end, but you don’t really think about it until it happens,” said the Start High product, who finished with 1,000-plus points and nearly 800 rebounds. “Right now I’m in shock a little bit. I was expecting to have practice tomorrow. But I’m blessed and proud. I wouldn’t trade these years for anything in the world.”
Cullop also admitted she wasn’t anticipating it ending when or how it did.
“As the seconds ticked off, it hit me that I’m done coaching this group of seniors,” she said. “I can’t imagine finding five kids more enjoyable to coach. It’s very difficult.”
Shafir, who returned for a fifth year after a knee injury cost her almost all of last season, came to UT from Israel, speaking hardly any English, and she said she had hoped to simply make it through the first month.
Instead, she became arguably the most popular women’s player in UT history. Certainly, she’ll be among the most memorable.
“Five years, wow … it has been amazing,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s over. I’m happy with what we accomplished. And I’m so thankful for our fans. They made it so special. And they made this moment a lot harder.”
Shafir stared out at the TV cameras and tape recorders, waiting for the next question. None came. So she stood slowly and smiled.
“Thank you,” she said, “for the last time.”
UT’s fans had articulated the same a little earlier, also for the last time.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.