An abundance of speed and athleticism last year by Eastern Michigan resulted in the undoing of a University of Toledo women’s basketball team that never solved that frenetic tempo, falling three times to the eventual Mid-American Conference tournament champion.
If one game is an indication, Central Michigan could be shaping up to be this year’s Eastern Michigan. The Chippewas are plenty quick and athletic, and they bundle those qualities with size at every position. That spelled bad news Thursday for a Toledo team that spent the past month or so appearing indestructible, and it offered an acknowledgment that the Chippewas are a frightening match up for the projected MAC champion Rockets.
Athleticism and torrid shooting ultimately tilted the scales in Central Michigan’s 73-66 win in the MAC opener at Savage Arena. Toledo’s loss is its first in two months — snapping a streak of 11 wins — and is only its third loss at home against a MAC opponent in coach Tricia Cullop’s five years.
"Central’s going to beat a lot of people this year," said Cullop, who is 63-9 at home as UT’s coach.
Sophomore Crystal Bradford, arguably the most talented player in the MAC, was a nightmarish match up for the Rockets (12-2, 0-1 MAC).
The shifty guard began the evening firing from long distance — not typically her specialty — and had 14 points within about five minutes of the opening whistle. The left-hander soon migrated to the paint and overpowered whomever was defending her. Many times it was Andola Dortch, the reigning MAC defensive player of the year who was ceding 5 inches to the 6-foot Bradford.
Bradford equaled her career high with 27 points on 11-of-16 shooting.
"If she’s able to get a smaller guard on her, she can shoot right over the top of you, and she can push you down through the lane and go score," Cullop said. "What’s tough is she shot the 3 so well tonight."
Three other Chippewas scored in double figures — Jessica Green (16), Jessica Schroll (14), and Niki DiGuilio (10) — and Central Michigan shot a blistering 54 percent from the field. UT entered the night ranked first in the MAC, holding opponents to 35 percent.
"I think our defense was pretty good," Dortch said. "Sometimes people hit good shots and you have to say, ’Good shot.’ "
Wasted was the finest performance in the career of UT sophomore Inma Zanoguera. The Spaniard scored a career-high 19 points — her previous high was 12 — to go along with eight assists, six rebounds, and three steals.
Lecretia Smith equaled her career high with 14 points, and Naama Shafir and Yolanda Richardson contributed 11 and 10, respectively.
Shafir sat the bench for a six-minute stretch in the second half after picking up her fourth foul. The game was tied at 53 when she checked out, and the Rockets trailed by six when she re-entered. Shafir tried to make up for lost time, knocking down a 3 upon her return and skipping an outlet pass to Zanoguera later to fuel a three-point play. That sequence tied the game at 63.
"I need to be able to be on the court to do that," Shafir said. "I can’t be in foul trouble."
A Bradford jumper in the paint broke a 65-65 tie, and another one widened the lead to six with 1 minute, 38 seconds to go. She was too much for the Rockets on their home floor, a development that will certainly be recounted in the build up to the Feb. 24 rematch.
"They’re a big, long, lengthy team," Cullop said. "They’re able to switch on a lot of stuff and it doesn’t hurt them when they do switch. But we have to do a better job of capitalizing and executing in our offense to take advantages of the switch and we didn’t do that."
The Rockets have no time to sulk. They head to rival Bowling Green on Sunday.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.