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CLEVELAND --- It would have made for a more compelling story had Tricia Cullop ripped into her team at halftime or made some brilliant schematic change that flipped her team's defensive switch.The truth behind the University of Toledo's 72-62 quarterfinal win Thursday afternoon over Northern Illinois wasn't too theatrical.
"We started playing defense," Cullop said flatly. "In the first half, we didn't play any."
UT, the third seed in the Mid-American Conference tournament, ratcheted up its intensity, became more conscientious of the 3-point line, and rebounded with more enthusiasm after the break. It manifested in the Rockets advancing to a semifinal meeting Friday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena with Eastern Michigan, a team that's given UT a heap of trouble over the past 12 months.
The half-to-half improvement was astounding. After NIU torched the nets for 40 points in the first half -- one more than it scored all day long in a 49-39 loss last month at Savage Arena -- the Rockets buckled down and embodied the defensive principles that fueled their third straight 20-win season.
Open shot opportunities dried up, quick hands disrupted passing lanes, and UT upped its rebounding effort from eight at halftime to 34 for the game. Thirteen minutes into the second half, NIU (14-17) had only added four points to the scoreboard.
The Huskies' shooting percentage, which stood at 57 percent at the break, plummeted to 39 percent by the end of the game.
"We liked the points that we were scoring, but we felt like we had given them too many offensive rebounds, too many easy baskets, and we weren't playing the defense we pride ourselves on," said senior Haylie Linn, who had 12 points.
After wiping away a 40-38 halftime deficit, UT built its lead methodically and went up 10 on Kyle Baumgartner's 8-foot baseline jumper with 7:09 to go.
NIU's Courtney Shelton, who knocked down three early 3-pointers, never made another one. Amanda Corral had troubles too, shooting just 1 of 6 in the second half, finishing with 13 points.
"I think they increased their pressure," NIU coach Kathi Bennett. "They really started to get out on the wings, deny a little more, got in our face, and tried to pressure us a little more."
Andola Dortch, the MAC defensive player of the year, finished with 24 points and eight assists, and Baumgartner got the most out of her 15 bench minutes, posting nine points and seven rebounds.
That marked the second straight quality game for Baumgartner, who had 14 points and eight boards in a win over Ball State to close the regular season.
"She just did the little things today," Cullop said. "That's all you have to do. Put the little things together and you get the win."
Janelle Reed-Lewis scored five points in her first action since suffering a concussion Feb. 15 at Central Michigan. Reserve center Brianna Jones has yet to return from the concussion she suffered in the season finale, and Cullop is unsure of her availability moving forward.
Two potentially scary moments occurred in the waning moments, but neither is expected to be much of a problem. Lecretia Smith tweaked her left knee with 5:20 to go and never returned -- although she could have if necessary -- and Dortch was lost after crumbling to the ground in the final minute or so after colliding with NIU's Jenna Thorp.
"I just caught a cramp in my calf," Dortch said.
Smith and Dortch being resigned to the team's bench elicits reminders of Feb. 21 when both of them picked up two early fouls in a 54-33 loss at Eastern Michigan.
The keys to UT ending its three-game losing streak to EMU, Cullop said, is reading traps, making good passes against EMU's zone, and, as she looked squarely at Dortch "staying out of foul trouble."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.