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Published: Thursday, 11/1/2012

Cullop focused on getting Toledo Rockets to NCAA women's basketball tourney

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

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There is just one piece of unfinished business for the University of Toledo women’s basketball program. If preseason predictions hold true, they will achieve it.

Toledo was picked Wednesday to win the Mid-American Conference tournament title based on a vote by the league’s coaches and members of the media. The Rockets, who arguably have the most talent assembled in the five seasons under coach Tricia Cullop, were tapped to capture the championship by more than half of the 30 voters.

Toledo received 16 votes, edging last year’s runner-up, Central Michigan, with 12 and perennial contender Bowling Green State University with two. Additionally, the Rockets were pegged to win their fourth consecutive West division crown.

"The thing that’s left out there that we haven’t reached yet that I want so badly for these seniors is the opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament," Cullop said.

Seniors Naama Shafir and Yolanda Richardson were named to the preseason West squad along with their junior teammate Andola Dortch. Central Michigan’s Crystal Bradley and Eastern Michigan’s Natachia Watkins also were honored.

Toledo picked up 24 first-place nominations in the West vote, with Central Michigan receiving the other six. Under them, in order, are defending tournament champion Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan, and Ball State.

In a somewhat unexpected announcement, Miami was picked to win the East with 16 votes over eight-time defending division champion Bowling Green with 13. Akron, who attracted the lone remaining vote, is picked third ahead of Ohio, Kent State, and Buffalo.

BG returns four starters from last year’s team that was the top seed in the MAC tournament but is without venerable coach Curt Miller, who is now at Indiana. Tempered expectations are a welcoming thought to first-year coach Jennifer Roos.

"Is it different not being picked first in the East? Yes, but I’m ecstatic the bull’s-eye can be on Miami, the bull’s-eye can be on Toledo," said Roos, an assistant under Miller. "That’s an unbelievable pressure to deal with day in and day out because you get caught up looking and reading about your name in the headlines and it’s a tiring process."

Senior Chrissy Steffen and junior Alexis Rogers were named to the preseason East team along with the Miami duo Kirsten Olowinski and Courtney Osborn, and Akron’s Rachel Tecca.

The Falcons will host Slippery Rock on Sunday in an exhibition, the same day Toledo hosts Wayne State in an exhibition. Toledo opens the regular season Nov. 9 at home against Arkansas State. A day later BG will host Madonna.

Cullop, who is 96-40 at Toledo, said she already addressed with her team its top billing in the preseason poll.

"If you ask my players they would tell you I think this is a great compliment, but it doesn’t mean much more than we’re respected," she said.

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



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