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Published: Monday, 1/5/2009

Rockets set tone early in tune-up for MAC season

BY MAUREEN FULTON
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
The Rockets' Jessica Williams goes to the basket against SIU- Edwardsville at Savage Arena. Yesterday's win sends UT into MAC play this week with a 6-7 record. The Rockets' Jessica Williams goes to the basket against SIU- Edwardsville at Savage Arena. Yesterday's win sends UT into MAC play this week with a 6-7 record.
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Yesterday's game for the University of Toledo women's basketball team had all the makings of a tune-up session for Mid-American Conference action.

The Rockets made sure their matchup with Southern Illinois-Edwardsville had its intended purpose, beating the Cougars 80-58 at Savage Arena. UT set season highs in several categories, including points, assists and shooting percentage, in its final nonconference game before heading to Western Michigan on Wednesday.

The Rockets scored 19 of the game's first 20 points, and the Cougars couldn't make a dent in their deficit in the second half.

"For the first time this season, I thought for the majority of the game that we had a lot of kids very into it, very focused," UT coach Tricia Cullop said. "I'm very proud of the team for finishing this game. We've gotten in the position this season to have a 20-point lead, but not to keep it until the buzzer. I'm very proud of the effort that we got."

SIU-Edwardsville is moving into Division I competition and has lost 16 straight games. But the Rockets have played other lesser opponents and allowed them to come back into the game after building a lead. After UT's fast start the Cougars could only cut the difference to 13 in the first half, and 19 in the second.

"Our main focus today was to get them quick and keep the lead, show we're strong throughout the entire game," junior Lisa Johnson said. "It's different for us. We're not used to it. Hopefully that's something we're going to get used to."

UT improved to 6-7. Freshman point guard Naama Shafir led the Rockets with 17 points and eight assists, Allie Clifton added 14 points and nine rebounds and Johnson scored 12.

The Rockets  Naama Shafir drives toward the basket Sunday afternoon at Savage Arena. She led Toledo with 17 points. The Rockets Naama Shafir drives toward the basket Sunday afternoon at Savage Arena. She led Toledo with 17 points.
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The Rockets forced 10 SIU-E turnovers in the first eight minutes. Their defense was strong in allowing 34 percent shooting and dominating on the boards, but the offense was more impressive.

UT had 25 assists on 30 baskets, moving the ball in and out and around the key until it found a wide-open player. The Rockets' 44-point first half was the highest since they scored 45 in the second game of the year against Loyola Marymount.

"I think it's very important, going into MAC play on a roll and getting some adrenaline going," Clifton said. "It just gives us confidence to go out and play our game. A new season starts right now."

Although the score wasn't close in the second half, the Rockets still provided some entertainment to the crowd of 2,213. UT responded to the Cougars' press by finding freshman Larrita Gipson in the corner three straight times. She had just entered the game for the first time, but Gipson made three straight 3-pointers to stretch UT's lead to 28.

"Larrita deserves to be commended, because she really gave us a lift in the second half," Cullop said. "Their press was starting to cause some problems, but when you've got someone in the back sticking 3s it really takes the enthusiasm out of their press."

Shafir provided some highlight-reel material in earning a season-high assist total. With six minutes to play she stole the ball, raced down the court on a fast break and flipped it behind her back to Clifton for the layup.

"Our players are understanding how to play with Naama," Cullop said. "She's such a good driver that you've got to be prepared to catch the ball at any moment. You never know when the ball's going to come into your hands. Our players have gotten better at reading her and that's only going to help our situation."

Contact Maureen Fulton at:

mfulton@theblade.com

or 419-724-6160.



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