Momentum seemed to grow with each win. So did the fan support.
A sold out crowd of 7,301 watched the University of Toledo women win a national championship Saturday when the Rockets beat Southern California, 76-68, in the finals of the WNIT at Savage Arena.
Following the game, UT coach Tricia Cullop grabbed a microphone from the scorer's table and thanked those who supported her team during this historic six-game stretch.
"You guys are amazing," Cullop said. "How does it feel to be a national champion?"
Attendances grew larger and larger every game with a total of 25,699 walking through the turnstiles during the tournament.
In order to host these games, UT managed to submit higher-dollar bids than any of its opponents, including marquee names like Auburn, Alabama, and Syracuse. Fans clearly were appreciative.
"The WNIT is a first-class tournament, and it raised the bar on national exposure for UT and the city of Toledo," UT athletic director Mike O'Brien said. "In addition to our tournament success on the court, the tournament helped us connect with the community. I couldn't be more proud of Toledo and northwest Ohio for all of our support."
Saturday's announced attendance — again, 7,301 — is actually one number higher than the arena's listed capacity. Fans were lined up on the concourse level several rows deep, and aside from a small smattering of USC fans, the arena was covered in midnight blue and gold.
"We have played four big games on the road, and every arena we've gone to, the crowd's gotten bigger and bigger and bigger," USC coach Michael Cooper said. "[The Rockets] were just as tired as we were, but they got that extra adrenaline from their fans."
LESSON LEARNED: UT sophomore center Yolanda Richardson said "everything happens for a reason" when asked if winning a WNIT title is neater than qualifying for the NCAA tournament and losing in the first round.
Richardson said a loss to Eastern Michigan in the Mid-American Conference tournament helped springboard her team to success in the WNIT.
"We wish that we could go back in time and still do better, but I think we learned from our mistakes, and I think that's what made us as good as we are today," Richardson said.
Only two seniors graduate from this team, which set a school record with 29 wins. While acknowledging that replacing starters Melissa Goodall and Jessica Williams will be a challenge, Richardson expects a special 2011-12 season for the Rockets.
"I'm very excited because we came this far, and I think we can come this far again, if not better," she said.
MS. EVERYTHING: UT freshman Andola Dortch played a solid all-around game. She scored five points, grabbed nine rebounds, and added three steals and three assists. Perhaps the fastest player on the team, Dortch was a pest defensively against USC ball handlers in the open court.
With about a minute left in the first half, Dortch (5-foot-7) ran into a screen set by USC's 6-2 Cassie Harberts and tumbled to the floor in pain. Cullop was angry, as were the Rockets fans.
Dortch said she was not woozy after the hit but did admit "I had an instant headache because I was hit right on the eyeball."
Dortch underwent two ACL surgeries last season and redshirted. She says her health is now fine.
"I tried not to think about it," she said. "I just tried to get back into my rhythm."
HUSTLE PLAY: Naama Shafir's 40 points will grab the headlines and so will her being name most valuable player in the WNIT, but her feistiness, as Cooper called it, should not be overlooked.
With her team ahead 67-55, Shafir had a layup blocked by Gilbreath and reacted by sneaking from behind Gilbreath and knocking the ball loose. Shafir then dove onto the floor, corralled the ball, and signaled for a time out. The official ruled it a jump ball, which went to UT.
"She did what she had to do for her team," Cooper said.
ALL TOURNEY: UT's Richardson was named to the WNIT all-tournament team with USC's Briana Gilbreath and Ashley Corral, UNC-Charlotte's Shannon McCallum, and Illinois State's Emily Hanley. The players were all on teams that reached the semifinals.