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UT women enter MAC tournament without Johnson

CLEVELAND - To make it through the grind of a conference tournament and come out at the end with a championship, a team needs to have all hands on deck.

The head coach needs to be sharp in managing the game, the assistants need to be solid in their game preparation, the standout players need to produce and role players need to step up.

For the University of Toledo women's basketball team, the assignment of winning its first Mid-American Conference tournament title since 2001 recently got a little more difficult.

Senior forward and co-captain Lisa Johnson, a Northview graduate, suffered a torn ACL and MCL in her left knee during an 89-84 overtime loss at Eastern Michigan last week, thereby ending her playing career.

"I definitely was in shock for a couple days after I found out, and I think I still am," said fellow senior forward and co-captain Allie Clifton. "I've been with her since I've been here for four years. We've worked side-by-side, and even when I'm not on the court, she still gives me that emotion and intensity that she brings every day."

Johnson averaged 3.6 points and 2.3 rebounds per game this season as one of UT coach Tricia Cullop's first options off the bench, but her value to the Rockets is so much more than just statistics.

"She's a hard worker, she talks, she communicates, and she just brings a lot to the team," Clifton said. "I know that even though she's not on the court, she'll still do all that. So from that aspect, I'm OK, but at the same time it's shocking.

"Never in my life would I ever have thought that would happen to her, especially right now."

But the Rockets (22-7) know they have to move forward without Johnson.

Senior starting forwards Tanika Mays and Melissa Goodall will be counted on to play more minutes, and freshmen Yolanda Richardson and Lecretia Smith will be the first subs to check into the game at the post position.

"It's one of those things where she doesn't want us to be down about it," Clifton said. "I think we need to keep that in the back of our minds. It's adversity, but we've faced that all season."

To that point, Johnson had already missed time earlier this year with a left shoulder injury, Clifton has battled a chronic right foot injury that has forced her into becoming a spectator at times, and Mays sat out all or part of three games with a knee injury last month.

In addition, Richardson was sidelined earlier in the season with an illness, and sophomore guard Courtney Ingersoll is coming off an illness but is expected to be available for today's MAC tournament quarterfinal matchup with Ball State (14-16).

"We've had great practice at overcoming things all season," Cullop said. "I don't think I've ever coached a season where we've missed so many key players at different times. But if there's anything I can say about us, it's that we've been very resilient all season long. We're going to have to draw from those experiences and understand that we're going to have to adapt and other players are going to have to step up."

UT hasn't had a completely healthy roster since December, so it has the experience of facing Ball State twice in the regular season without all of its key components.

But now that it's tournament time, there's no chance at a redo. If the Rockets want to achieve their goal of making it to the NCAA tournament, they will undoubtedly need to win the MAC title.

"We're pumped up and ready to play," Mays said. "We know it's leave it all on the floor or go home. There's no more time for wake-up calls. If we lose this time, our season is over. We have to stay focused every game and play 40 minutes and be ready to play."

Contact Zach Silka at:

zsilka@theblade.com

or 419-724-6084.

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