By Tricia Cullop’s count, she had 7½ able bodies dressed for Sunday’s game between her Toledo Rockets and Purdue University.
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Then, barely four minutes in, Stephanie Recker went down and didn’t get up for the longest time; it was 6½ able bodies, and counting.
Another five minutes and Inma Zanoguera picked up her second foul. She would get her third with 3½ minutes left in the half. This was not good. This is the one body more than any other Toledo has to have on the court to sport a chance against most any team let alone the No. 18-ranked women’s team in the country.
At halftime, UT’s medical staff asked Brianna Jones to describe her pain level on a scale of 1 to 10. Jones, the starting low-post player who Cullop counted as the half-body at game’s start, went with 7. She had a pin inserted in her shinbone in August, missed the Rockets’ first two games, and wasn’t expected to dress for this one. She called Cullop after practice on Saturday and said, “Whatever you need coach, I’ll give it to you.” Seven out of 10, Jones said. And she played on.
Somehow, amazingly, a banged-up team playing on fumes and adrenalin fueled by a big matinee crowd at Savage Arena got to the final 6.4 seconds trailing by a single point with Purdue headed to the line for two shots. K.K. Houser made the first, missed the second, and Zanoguera rebounded and headed up the court.
As the clock ticked down she drove to the left corner, looked ready to drive, shook off a defender and stepped back behind the 3-point line.
“I thought it was going down before I shot it,” the Spaniard said. “And I felt it was going down when I shot it.”
“All net,” Cullop thought to herself.
Exactly 4,012 people, plus players, plus trumpet players, plus ushers, plus cheerleaders, plus media figured it was in. It was a perfect shot, perfectly released, with perfect rotation. I swear one referee started to lift both arms into the air. Somehow it glanced off the back of the iron and rolled over the cylinder and the final horn sounded.
Purdue 81, Toledo 79.
The disappointed Rockets lined up, arms around each other’s shoulders, for the Alma Mater and then Ana Capotosto reached over and tapped Zanoguera under her chin, as if to say chins up.
“At the end of the day, we’re all human,” Zanoguera said. “We’re tough for the most part. But every now and then you need a teammate to pick you up a little.”
So, did she need that chins-up tap?
“Maybe,” Inma said. “I mean, I don’t believe I lost the game. But the team puts a lot of responsibility on me and I feel like I let ’em down a little. So, yeah, it was nice.”
She had no reason to have her head down despite a few shots she might normally make that missed in the second half. Without her, a 65-55 Boilermakers lead with 12 minutes to play would have evolved into a rout.
Not to come across as rah-rah, but there should have been no heads down after this one. The Rockets had no business coming close. This was a deep and talented Big Ten power with a dead-eye triple shooter against a MAC power that is young and retooling and had four players in street clothes and another that probably should have been.
Instead, Jones, the 6-foot-2 senior center from Central Catholic who is called Crunch by her teammates, was little short of spectacular. She made 5 of 8 shots, mostly jumpers, for a career-high 12 points and added seven rebounds and a steal in 25 minutes.
“Talk about mental toughness,” said Cullop.
“Crunch is not completely healed,” Zanoguera said. “She really stepped up. She’s the reason we hung with them.”
That and superb guard play from Andola Dortch and Janelle Reed-Lewis, not to mention freshman Janice Monakana’s 15-point relief effort and big boosts off a short bench from Capotosto and Sophie Reecher. Even Recker, who appeared to suffer a back injury, returned a couple times — “She had tears in her eyes running up and down the floor,” Cullop said — and ate up some needed minutes.
If you’ve been counting, that’s all 7½ of them.
“I was down, kind of mad at myself, sitting on the bench in foul trouble,” Zanoguera said. “Then I saw how hard everybody was working, how much character we had on the floor, and all I could do was cheer my [derriere] off for them.
“We’re a team with fire. We’re young, we’re not quite healthy, but man, talk about some big hearts.”
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.