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Published: Monday, 4/16/2012

Cullop looks to future after stressful season

UT coach turns page, tries to unwind

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Tricia Cullop leaves the court after Toledo lost to Eastern Michigan in the MAC semifinals, erasing any shot at a trip to the NCAA tourney.
Tricia Cullop leaves the court after Toledo lost to Eastern Michigan in the MAC semifinals, erasing any shot at a trip to the NCAA tourney.
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To unwind after basketball seasons, Tricia Cullop travels to Grand Cayman, a 22-mile long island located in the western Caribbean Sea.

Of the destination’s many draws, the most appealing to her is the poor cell phone reception.

“I check my email once a day,” she said.

Cullop, the women’s basketball coach at the University of Toledo, is exhausted these days. A short offseason last year because of her team’s journey to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament title and their trip to Israel in August left Cullop with no time to recharge her batteries.

The recent basketball season, as they always are, was stressful. Cullop’s best player suffered a season-ending injury in November, her team had excruciating losses that dashed two tournament runs, and her top assistant left the program. All the while, UT won 24 games, captured a share of the Mid-American Conference West division title, and advanced to the quarterfinals in its quest to repeat as WNIT champions. Of Cullop’s performances in a 12-year head coaching career, the recent campaign probably ranks among her finest. She sat down with The Blade recently to discuss that taxing season, to look ahead to next year, and to talk about a tricky situation she finds herself in with the NCAA as it relates to scholarship availability.

Painful memories

The losses are two of the most painful Cullop has endured, and they still haunt her — four years later.

In 2007-08, her final season at Evansville, Cullop’s team lost back-to-back games to close the regular season, squandering an outright Missouri Valley Conference championship.

“Either one of those games will haunt me for a long time,” she said.

So will losses last season to Eastern Michigan and Syracuse. A 10-point lead with less than eight minutes to play wasn’t enough in the MAC semifinals, as EMU stormed back to beat UT for the third time. Had the Rockets held on, they would’ve met Central Michigan — a team they swept in the regular season — in the finals with a berth in the NCAA tournament on the line.

The Syracuse loss was equally brutal. A win over the Orange and a berth in the WNIT semifinals seemed inevitable until Syracuse’s Rachel Coffey launched a deep and off-balanced 3-pointer on the final possession of regulation. Somehow the ball went in, and UT’s season ended in an overtime loss.

In a team meeting after the season, Cullop wrote on a board the names of the 10 teams UT lost to. Four of the losses, she concluded, could’ve been reversed by better free-throw shooting. Without a 24-of-41 effort at the line against Syracuse, Coffey wouldn’t have been in position to tie the game.

“I can tell you how I felt after every bad loss this season and seasons prior,” Cullop said. “They do stay with you, but I think they also serve as great motivators to make you better.”

That UT was in position to win championships despite a severe injury to star point guard Naama Shafir is a testimony to the strength of the team.

Looking forward

Shafir is slowly working her way back after undergoing surgery on a knee ligament she tore Nov. 25 at Indiana. Cullop was encouraged recently after watching her dribble a ball up and down the court at Savage Arena.

“It’s like a dose of good medicine to see one of your best players out there doing the things we know she can,” Cullop said.

Shafir, a three-time all-MAC selection and the 2011 WNIT championship game MVP, headlines a talented group returning that includes second-team MAC honorees Yolanda Richardson and Andola Dortch. Dortch was the league’s defensive player of the year.

Dortch, who filled in at point guard, will return to her natural position at shooting guard, giving UT one of the most talented backcourts among mid-major teams. Gone are seniors Courtney Ingersoll, the nation’s top 3-point shooter and her team’s proverbial heartbeat, and starting guard Haylie Linn. Cullop must also replace associate head coach Todd Mitmesser, who is moving to New York because of his wife’s job.

As for scheduling, UT will participate in four regular season tournaments and host two. Given her team’s success, Cullop has struggled to convince opponents from major conferences to visit UT — evidenced by her team playing Green Bay twice last season — and therefore is enticing them to come with the allure of playing multiple games. Participating schools will be announced at a later date. For the other two tournaments, UT will travel to the west coast and to the Atlanta area.

As for recruiting, Cullop received a verbal commitment from 5-foot-10 junior wing Lindsay Baker of Warsaw, Ind., and will spend the summer identifying post player prospects to fill roster spots that will be vacated when juniors Richardson, Kyle Baumgartner, and Lecretia Smith graduate after next season.

“If there’s a court I’m sitting on that doesn’t have a post player, then I need to move,” Cullop said.

Arriving in the fall are three freshman guards: point guard Cat Wells of Notre Dame Academy, combo guard Michele Hayes of Southfield, Mich., and wing Kendyl Nunn from suburban Chicago. Those three signed letters of intent with UT on Nov. 9 — a few weeks before Shafir was injured and decided to return for a fifth year. That makes 16 scholarship players for next year. The NCAA’s limit is 15.

Do the right thing

Cullop is willing to make concessions to the NCAA. Agree to redshirt someone? Fine. Play with 14 scholarship players in 2013-14? Done deal. What she doesn’t want to do is cut a player, which will be a brutal reality if the NCAA dismisses UT’s appeal to have 16 players on scholarship.

“I would hope the NCAA will take our case into consideration and do what’s best for all student-athletes,” she said. “It was something out of our control.”

An appeal will be submitted soon, and a response is expected within the next couple of weeks. There isn’t much of a precedent for how the NCAA will respond to UT’s request.

“I want Naama Shafir to enjoy the senior year that she should have enjoyed last year, and I hope our three incoming freshmen can enjoy the careers they’re supposed to enjoy,” Cullop said.

This woman deserves to enjoy a week on the island.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.



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