MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — The University of Toledo women’s basketball team scored a number of achievements, from taking a major step toward winning a conference title, to endorsing their star player for the league’s highest honor, to escaping the wrath of a Navy SEAL.
That last point warrants an explanation.
A SEAL instructor who trained the Rockets before the season addressed the team six weeks ago in the locker room after a home loss to Central Michigan and impugned their composure. Given the context, Toledo coach Tricia Cullop must have felt a measure of vindication Sunday when she began her postgame news conference following a 76-63 rematch win by lauding an attribute that happened to be a deficiency the last time these division powers clashed.
“I’m very proud of the composure of my players today,” Cullop said.
The Rockets, who hold a two-game lead in the Mid-American Conference West division with three games to go, fought back from 12 points down in the second half to win their 12th in a row. Naama Shafir engineered a 6-0 run at the end of the first half and a 16-0 run at the end of the game, registering yet another example of resolve in a season filled with them. Much like the time she banked in a 3-pointer against Bowling Green, or when she averted a Ball State comeback effort, the senior point guard was cool at the hottest moments. She scored 14 points in the final 13 minutes and finished with a season-high 29 points.
“She’s always willing to put herself on the line,” said Yolanda Richardson, whose 18 points came on 9 of 10 shooting.
Conversely, CMU’s best player turned in a clunker. Crystal Bradford, who dissected Toledo’s defense in a 73-66 win on Jan. 10, recorded more turnovers (eight) than points (six). Mix in 2 of 14 shooting and four fouls, and the flashy sophomore might have relinquished her status as the favorite for MAC player of the year. Shafir, whose 3-pointer stabbed a dagger into the Chippewas with 3 minutes, 46 seconds left, can now be viewed as the frontrunner.
“I hope she is,” Cullop said. “I think she’s very deserving. Our team would not be where we are if it were not for Naama. When we’ve needed an assist or a charge or a steal, she’s come up big. I hope people do pay attention to that. But I don’t want to take away from Bradford. She’s a tremendous player. Just because somebody doesn’t have a good night, I don’t want to say she’s not worthy.”
Amazingly the Chippewas (16-10, 10-3) scored 38 points in the first half and none came from the team’s two leading scorers. Bradford was 0 for 8 at that point, and Jessica Green, who had 16 points in the first meeting against Toledo, sat out her first game after tearing her ACL. Green’s replacement in the lineup, Niki DiGuilio (17 points), was the main reason CMU built a 12-point lead three minutes into the second half.
Then the Chips unraveled amid a string of empty offensive possessions.
“It was a reversal of roles,” CMU coach Sue Guevara said. “I thought we were very composed at their place in a very, very tough situation. I thought a couple of our players were trying to do it on their own and lost their composure.”
Inma Zanoguera, who defended Bradford in the first half, scored consecutive buckets in the 16-0 run to give Toledo its first lead. The Spaniard had 12 points and 11 rebounds. Andola Dortch (11 points) closed the barrage with three free throws, one of which marked her 1000th career point. Richardson, whose career point tally rests at 999, contributed to the run with two layups.
Today, the Rockets will learn if they cracked the top 25, a possibility after the teams ranked 21 through 23 lost in the last week. But first things first. The players have a phone call to make.
“I can’t wait for them to call him and say they responded in a better way,” Cullop said of the SEAL instructor. “That means a lot to them.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160, or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.