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Must-win games don't usually pop up on the schedule in January, when a team is playing just its second of 16 Mid-American Conference games.
Or do they?
The University of Toledo women's basketball team may have faced a must-win game when it hosted West Division rival Central Michigan at Savage Arena Sunday. And the Rockets found a way to rally twice in the second half to pull out a 58-53 win in front of 3,762 fans.
After a disappointing loss in Toledo's MAC opener at Western Michigan Thursday, the Rockets scored the game's final five points to improve to 8-6 overall and 1-1 in the MAC. CMU, which was picked second behind UT in the preseason MAC poll, fell to 9-7 overall and 1-1 in the league.
"At halftime I challenged our intensity because I thought we were playing very methodically, very uninspired," Toledo coach Tricia Cullop said. "I applaud our team because they came out with something to prove in the second half.
"We dropped one that we shouldn't have lost a few days ago, and that one hurt. But I think that also was a good reminder that you have to show up every night in our league, because when you don't, you will get [beat]."
Andola Dortch finished with 14 points, six rebounds, and five assists for Toledo, while Lecretia Smith had 13 points and a game-high 15 rebounds. Haylie Linn came off the bench to add 12 points for the Rockets.
Central Michigan was led by freshman Crystal Bradford, who finished with 23 points and 10 rebounds, while Jessica Green added 12 points and seven boards.
The Chippewas had the better of play in the first half thanks to Bradford, who scored 15 points mostly on drives to the basket. She added eight points early in the second before the Rockets forced her to miss her last five shots and held her scoreless in the final 10:26.
"In the first half, we tried to pressure her, but in the second half we realized we had to turn it up," Smith said. "We had to get in her grill a little bit and make sure we challenged her shots, make it tougher for her."
Toledo also struggled on offense in the first half, committing 13 turnovers that led to a 30-22 halftime deficit. The Rocket turned the ball over six more times in the first five minutes of the second half and were down 37-25 with 15:30 on the clock.
"We weren't cutting hard, and we weren't zipping the ball [on our passes]," Cullop said. "You can't get lazy against a team that's long and lanky and athletic, because they're going to alter and deflect some of those passes, and then they're off to the races.
"I thought in the second half we adapted to their length and athleticism, and we did a much better job of executing what we wanted to do offensively."
In the final 15 minutes, the Rockets sprang to life, using an 18-5 run to cut their deficit to 43-42 with 7:58 to play.
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UT eventually took a 50-49 lead on a layup by Dortch with 3:12 left, only to see the lead yo-yo three more times before Dortch sank a pair of free throws with 1:02 to play that gave the Rockets the lead for good. Toledo held CMU scoreless in that final minute, and Linn applied the dagger when she nailed a 3-pointer with 29 seconds on the clock that gave the Rockets a four-point advantage.
"There wasn't a ton of time left on the shot clock," Linn said. "The defender didn't have her hand up, and it was an open look. I took the shot and, it went in."
Cullop didn't mind that Linn took the shot despite missing all but one of her previous seven 3-point attempts.
"She was wide open, she's a senior," Cullop said. "You can't worry about the percentages."
One other poor percentage the Rockets managed to avoid Sunday was their diminished chance of winning the MAC West if they had lost to CMU and fell two games behind the Chippewas early in the season.
"We're not going to take anything for granted," Cullop said. "I don't think we should value [a win] over one team more than another.
"I just think we need to show up every game with the intensity that we did -- in the second half."
NOTES: One of the game's three officials, David Stewart, was injured late in the first half and did not return. "With only two referees, we checked out like crazy [on rebounds] because there wasn't a third official to see some of the fouls," Cullop said. "It's the first time I've coached a game where we finished with two referees since high school." ... The Rockets' 49-41 rebounding advantage included a season-best 37 defensive boards. ... Smith's 15 rebounds was a career high, and the double-double was her second this season. ... Ingersoll's eight boards tied her season high and were one short of her career best. ... If you don't include Bradford's 11-for-26 (42.3 percent) shooting, the rest of the Chippewas were 10-for-43 (23.2 percent) from the floor.
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.