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Tricia Cullop ordered her seniors off the court one by one, a fitting close to a storybook career.
First to sub out Wednesday was a forward who has been underappreciated compared to some of her more acclaimed teammates. Lecretia Smith, a merciless defender for the University of Toledo, took a seat on the bench with 3 minutes, 34 seconds to go.
Next was Kyle Baumgartner. Her services were no longer needed, not in this unexpected rout in which the No. 25 Rockets pummeled the Mid-American Conference’s second best team, Ball State, 63-39.
Riley McCormick’s night was over. Seven times the left-hander jacked up a 3-pointer, and seven times she came up empty. Only after Cullop sent a substitute to the scorer’s table did McCormick finally hit, eliciting great applause from a crowd that had grown sympathetic of her tough luck.
"I think she just needed to feel some pressure because I finally had her sub sitting at the scorer’s table waiting to come in," Cullop joked. "I think she knew she’d better hit it now."
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The local star received the second loudest ovation. Yolanda Richardson, the program’s leading shot blocker and a 1,000-point scorer, was superb in her swan song at Savage Arena. The Start graduate totaled 16 rebounds and 14 points, overwhelming a Ball State interior that is devoid of anyone that can match her strength.
"I knew I wanted to leave it all out there," Richardson said. "It’s my last game at Savage. I didn’t want to leave any doubts in my head."
There was never a question as to which senior would leave the court last.
Naama Shafir, a galvanizing figure for five years in this building, bid farewell with 2:20 remaining. The crowd of 4,542 — many of them fans of Shafir as much as they are fans of Toledo — went bonkers. Two of them traveled all the way from Hoshaya, Israel, one year later than expected. Shafir’s parents made travel arrangements to attend senior night last year, only to scrap their plans when their daughter suffered a season-ending knee injury. Shlumit and Itzik Shafir will stick around until after the MAC tournament, in which their daughter’s team will be favored to win the title.
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"I still can’t believe I’m not playing here anymore," Shafir said. "It kind of makes me sad, but at the same time it’s been a great five years. Our fans make it more special."
The five seniors started together for the first time and opened on a 10-0 run, forcing a timeout by Ball State (15-14, 12-4) which was surprisingly not competitive after the first 10 minutes or so. The Cardinals, who were picked in the preseason to finish last in the MAC West, secured the No. 2 seed in the tournament. Cullop said she voted for BSU’s Brady Sallee as MAC coach of the year.
UT’s seniors improved their record to 105-29 and 54-10 in the MAC. They lost only three MAC games at home.
There was one sour footnote to an otherwise ideal evening. Central Michigan, which is responsible for Toledo’s only league loss, earned the No. 4 seed in the tournament. In a perfect setting, another MAC team would do Toledo’s dirty work and knock off the Chippewas. As it is, the Rockets (27-2, 15-1) could face CMU in the semifinals — Toledo’s first game of the tournament.
Worrying can wait, especially after a game like this one.
"They did what they needed to do on senior night to make it memorable," Cullop said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.