MUNCIE, Ind. — Fans watched a free basketball game Sunday, though that hardly seemed to be a great deal several minutes into it.
A match up between co-leaders of the Mid-American Conference West got ugly in a hurry, with the University of Toledo women sprinting to a 13-0 run against a Ball State team that appeared to shrink amid the magnitude of the program’s biggest game in years. Moments later the Rockets built their lead to an unthinkable 20 points, managing to do so despite their own struggles.
Oh, how things changed. With five minutes to go, the teams with identical league records had an identical score.
"It was a rollercoaster ride," Toledo’s Yolanda Richardson said.
The Rockets, who blew a 20-point lead, did not blow the opportunity to wrest outright control of the West, eking out a 68-64 win, their ninth in a row. The preseason favorite to win the MAC, Toledo assumed pole position for the No. 1 seed in the tournament.
Point guard Naama Shafir was masterful at the end, scoring eight of her 19 points after the Cardinals tied the game with less than five minutes to go.
The fifth-year senior drained all four of her free throws, nailed two jumpers in the paint, and dribbled around a defender to find Richardson (11 points, nine rebounds) for a layup that put the Rockets in front for good with 1:44 to go. Not unlike last month at Bowling Green, when she banked in a key 3-pointer, Shafir was coldly determined.
"I felt like I needed to take the ball," said Shafir, who struggled early and finished with five turnovers and 6 of 19 shooting. "I needed to create for my teammates or find a way to the basket."
Added Ball State coach Brady Sallee: "When you saw the game on the line, you saw a stud step up."
Sallee, who has the Cardinals (11-12, 8-2) contending for a league title in his first year, had to have been dismayed by the early happenings. Several thousand fans — including 500 or so Rocket supporters — took advantage of free matinee admission to the 11,500-capacity Worthen Arena. They proceeded to watch their team miss its first 12 shots, turn the ball over six times, and lose reserve guard Taylor Miller to a knee injury.
All of that occurred before Ball State scored a point.
Toledo (21-2, 9-1), which led at halftime 37-21, could have been in front by more but shot just 35 percent from the field and registered 12 turnovers.
"When you play the cream of the crop like you are in Toledo you have to be special," Sallee said. "You have to be almost perfect, and that’s a lot of pressure on a basketball team. I thought my team handled it well."
The Cardinals chipped bit by bit, cutting the deficit to single digits with 7:21 to go. Moments later Toledo’s Inma Zanoguera (10 points) fouled out, depriving the Rockets of an offensive threat at a time when buckets were drying up. Consecutive 3-pointers by BSU’s Shanee’ Jackson (17 points) knotted the score at 53 and a Brandy Woody jumper moments later gave the Cardinals a lead that no one figured they’d ever seen. Woody, who picked up three fouls in the first half, scored all 15 of her points in the second half.
In the end the comeback was a tease, not unlike Toledo’s first-half surge. Shafir did her thing, and Lecretia Smith pulled down offensive rebounds on two Andola Dortch missed free throws in the final 20 seconds.
"That’s a huge play," Cullop said of Smith. "And she did it not once but twice."
Dortch had 13 points, and Smith corralled 10 boards.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.