With six games left in the regular season, the University of Toledo women's basketball - the preseason favorite to win the Mid-American Conference West Division - is in striking distance of making good on that prediction.
The Rockets (18-5, 8-2 MAC) hold a one-game lead over Eastern Michigan for first place in the division standings, with a road game against the Eagles looming March 2.
Next on the docket, however, is Akron (14-9, 8-2) at 7 tonight at Savage Arena.
"This is a big week for us," UT coach Tricia Cullop said. "Not only do we play Akron [tonight] but also we face a Western Michigan team on Saturday that is hot right now. This is the time when the cream rises, and we have to make sure that we separate ourselves away from the pack."
The Zips are riding a season-long five-game winning streak, while the Rockets were reminded of the perils of playing on the road last week.
UT collapsed in the second half of a 62-59 loss at Kent State last Wednesday, but rebounded nicely three days later in a 76-54 victory at Ohio on Saturday.
"Being on the road, there's something to the focus that we're still learning," Cullop said. "But I do think that our kids are re-focused and understand how important each and every game is and just what's at stake now. We have to make sure we don't lose our focus."
To strengthen her team's mental toughness, Cullop used every drill imaginable in practice Thursday night to simulate the tough road environments the Rockets will encounter down the stretch, and ones they will have to overcome to maintain their spot atop the West.
"We had the whole Rec Center following us [Thursday night], because I was pretty animated," Cullop said with a smile.
"I think a lot of people didn't know I liked to yell that much."
But that was a clear purpose behind putting the Rockets through the strenuous workout.
"We weren't going to let them feel sorry for themselves," Cullop said. "Even though our practice wasn't long, it was very demanding. We took a lot of charges, we didn't call a lot of fouls and we prepared ourselves for what it's like on the road.
"I thought our players stepped to the plate. They didn't whine or complain, and I thought that showed the character that we need in order to win, home or away."
Other than giving the Rockets a wake-up call, the Kent State loss also gave them their first real taste of what it's like playing every night with a target on your back.
Last year, UT was able to play the role of the underdog and sneak up on people, but this season it has to live up to high expectations every single night.
"That's a new thing for our team," Cullop said. "We have a lot of players who aren't used to handling that and watching the excitement from Kent State after they beat us.
"Our kids have to understand that we can't have a B or C performance. We have to bring our best to the table, because everybody is waiting to beat us."
Contact Zach Silka
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