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Published: Sunday, 4/3/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

WOMEN'S NATIONAL INVITATION TOURNAMENT

Historic championship triggers euphoria

BY MARK ZABORNEY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Blue and gold confetti rains down on a sea of gold T-shirts as the Rockets defeat USC at Savage Arena. Blue and gold confetti rains down on a sea of gold T-shirts as the Rockets defeat USC at Savage Arena.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo
Player Melissa Goodall dumps confetti on coach Tricia Cullop as they celebrate UT's Women's National Invitation Tournament win, the first postseason tournament championship in the school's history. Player Melissa Goodall dumps confetti on coach Tricia Cullop as they celebrate UT's Women's National Invitation Tournament win, the first postseason tournament championship in the school's history.
THE BLADE/LORI KING Enlarge | Buy This Photo

Don Strong had a reserved spot for the Women's National Invitation Tournament basketball championship Saturday at the University of Toledo's Savage Arena.

The season ticket holder didn't occupy it for a second. From tipoff to the Rockets' 76-68 victory over the University of Southern California, he stood behind the band and next to the video cameras on the concourse level of the arena. The victory was UT's first postseason tournament championship in school history.

"I'm not sitting in my seat. It's too exciting!" Mr. Strong of the Old West End said, in between fist pumps and the occasional dance step. "Those girls are so good."

"They're awesome," said D'Ante Bowen, 14, who stood nearby with his father, Richard Bowen of South Toledo.

The excitement, especially as the Rockets held the lead in the second half, engulfed the packed arena, a sea of standing, waving, cheering gold T-shirts. To the rhythm of the band, the sound system, the din, fans flourished hand-lettered signs — "Go Rockets" and "Our Seniors Rock."

"It's got atmosphere here. You can just feel it," said Tony Davis, who watched the last minutes of the game with the Bowens and Mr. Strong. "You know it's good for the city."

Vicki Forcina, a UT senior from Richfield, Ohio, and her friends added to the atmosphere and rejoiced in the payoff. "This is my last UT athletic event. We're long overdue for a win," she said. "They had the heart. They had good players, but they all put heart into it."

Some among the record crowd of 7,301 were admitted converts to the women's team, which for its first home game on Nov. 12 drew 845 fans. Average attendance during the regular season was 2,855.

Bernie Albert, a trustee of the University of Toledo Alumni Association, noticed the women's victories and heard the buzz. "I just had to see what was going on," said the 1968 UT graduate. "I couldn't believe the way they played. I couldn't get enough of them from that point on."

By the semifinals of the WNIT on Wednesday, the reported attendance at Savage was 7,020 — the most since the women's Jan. 30, 2010, victory over Bowling Green State University, which drew 5,825.

The women drew 5,701 on Feb. 28, 2009, for a win over Eastern Michigan University. Before that, though, they last drew more than 5,000 on Nov. 18, 2001, when they beat Duke University.

Before Saturday, the biggest crowd at Savage Arena was 7,252 on Dec. 3, 2008, for that season's men's basketball home opener and the debut of the renovated facility.

As the game ended, fans surrounded the team at center court. In seconds, a commemorative front page of The Blade proclaiming the championship victory in a tournament for teams that didn't make the NCAA women's tourney was everywhere.

Shiny blue and gold confetti still fell from the rafters as Victoria Turner, a third-year UT student, and Jalisa Golliday, a second-year student, smiled and held up the front page and Victoria's sister, Martina, a graduate student, snapped pictures. "I'm so proud of the ladies," Ms. Golliday said.

"I'm so proud to be a Rocket," Martina Turner said. Her sister added: "A lot of little girls will look up to Toledo."

Chloe McCammon, 12, was impressed by the players. "They have a lot of plans and plays lined up and ready," she said.

Her father and coach of her basketball team, Kevin McCammon, proposed giving up their men's basketball season tickets for women's season tickets. Chloe nodded her OK.

"This is the most fun we've had at a game all year," Mr. McCammon said.

Contact Mark Zaborney at: mzaborney@theblade.com or 419-724-6182.



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