Rockets lock up MAC championship

Toledo still shooting for bigger goals this season

3/4/2013
BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Naama Shafir keeps track of the ball while being defended by EMU's Natachia Watkins (50) and Chelsea Hite. Shafir had a tough game, but the Rockets still clinched an outright regular-season title.
Naama Shafir keeps track of the ball while being defended by EMU's Natachia Watkins (50) and Chelsea Hite. Shafir had a tough game, but the Rockets still clinched an outright regular-season title.

The net came down, and at some point a banner will go up.

Two years ago this was cause for jubilation, a sign of the University of Toledo women’s basketball team resurfacing as a menace in the Mid-American Conference.

On Sunday, in the wake of a 48-38 home win over Eastern Michigan, the scene represented little more than a primer for what could lie ahead. An outright Mid-American Conference regular-season conference title is great, but the Rockets are aware of its hollowness if not packaged with a tournament title.

"I think we know we’re not done yet," senior forward Lecretia Smith said.

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By prevailing in spite of a poor offensive display, Toledo (26-2, 14-1) ensured it will not share with any of its conference brethren the championship it garnered Thursday at Western Michigan. Perhaps of more importance, the Rockets sewed up the No. 1 seed in the MAC tournament and will rest comfortably until the semifinals, at which point they will begin their push to land the program’s first league tournament title since 2001.

"This isn’t the same feeling we had two years ago when we won the first one in a decade," coach Tricia Cullop said. "This is only the tip of the iceberg of what we’re looking for."

Ball State, which will visit Savage Arena this week for a regular-season finale, is jockeying for the No. 2 seed with Akron. On its face the outcome of Wednesday’s game will be meaningless, though that is not necessarily true. The Rockets, who rank No. 43 in the most recent RPI standings, will want to score another decent win to appease the NCAA tournament committee should they stumble two weeks from now in Cleveland.

Cullop said her team will prepare normally because "anytime I’ve watched a team that maybe has saved something, it seems like they’ve lost a piece of themselves. We don’t want to lose our identity."

Senior Kyle Baumgartner takes down part of the net after the title-clinching win.
Senior Kyle Baumgartner takes down part of the net after the title-clinching win.

That identity, built on oppressive defense more so than net-igniting offense, led to a 14th straight win before a matinee crowd of 4,557. The Rockets were a mess with the ball, hitting just 26 percent from the field — the same figure they gave up against an Eastern Michigan team intent on stunting the pace of the game — and just 11 of 20 at the free-throw line. Toledo missed its first 11 shots and trailed 8-2.

"That kind of goes along with Toledo basketball," said Smith, who grabbed 12 rebounds and scored 10 points. "We’re not hitting from an offensive perspective, but our defense comes big. We rely on that."

A 7-0 run to close the half gave the Rockets a 27-18 lead, despite scant output from three marquee players — Naama Shafir, Andola Dortch, and Yolanda Richardson — who shot a combined 2 of 16.

Inma Zanoguera added 14 points, and Richardson (11 rebounds), Kyle Baumgartner (nine rebounds), and Dortch (eight rebounds) collaborated with Smith to help outrebound the Eagles 57-41.

EMU (8-20, 6-9) hung around, and, if not for a regrettable coaching decision, the Eagles would have made it a two-possession game with five minutes to go. A fraction of a second before Desyree Thomas unloaded a deep 3-pointer that went in, her coach called timeout. It was an understandable move by Tory Verdi, aimed at salvaging a bad possession, but a 39-35 deficit at that juncture would have looked a whole lot better than 39-32.

"We didn’t have anything going, so I called timeout," Verdi said. "Obviously, it’s unfortunate the shot went in, but we had absolutely nothing going on."

Toledo scored seven of the next nine points to pull away, with Zanoguera draining a 3 to go up 12 with 2 minutes, 18 seconds remaining.

"Sooner or later you know [shots] are going to fall," Cullop said.

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