CLEVELAND — There is that one team, that one unmerciful opponent, that continues to prolong this recurring nightmare at the Mid-American Conference tournament for the University of Toledo women.
Bowling Green did it for a couple of seasons, and then passed the baton to Eastern Michigan. This year Central Michigan, which showed early signs of being that bugaboo, confirmed those concerns Friday.
The top-seeded Rockets could not exorcise five years of pain, coming undone by a swarm of blown layups and a talented Central Michigan team that beat Toledo for the second time in two months, 66-61. It marked the fourth time in five seasons Toledo, which won four division titles in that span, left Quicken Loans Arena with clean clothes still in their suitcases, falling one step short of the title game. The Rockets (27-3) will now cross their fingers and hope the NCAA tournament is forgiving of their weak regular-season schedule and chooses them Monday for an at-large bid.
PHOTO GALLERY: UT women eliminated at MAC tournament
More likely, Toledo, with a No. 42 RPI, will swallow its pride and accept an invitation for the fourth year in a row to the Women’s National Invitational Tournament.
"I don’t necessarily think it’s a common theme," said senior forward Lecretia Smith, who is 0-3 in semifinal games. "It’s not a curse. We come here, we compete, we play great teams, and we put up a great fight every year. We just come up short."
As good as the Rockets have been this season, piecing together win streaks of 11 and 15 and appearing in the Top 25, they always seemed to be chasing Central Michigan. The latest meeting played out more like the first one, when CMU torched Toledo at Savage Arena, than in the rematch when the Rockets rallied to erase an 11-point deficit with 11 minutes to go. Toledo, which never led after scoring the first basket, squandered opportunities at critical points of the second half.
Trailing by 10 at halftime, the new offensive plan emphasized pushing the ball to the posts. It yielded immediate success, except for the crucial final step in the process. Yolanda Richardson (13 points, 10 rebounds), the MAC’s leading field-goal percentage shooter, missed six layups in the first three minutes of the half.
"We got some point-blank looks, and it just wouldn’t go down," UT coach Tricia Cullop said. "At times they got her tied up, and other times I think she was worried about the double team and didn’t take it as strong as she normally does."
A big break came with 14 minutes, 10 seconds to go when Central Michigan’s Crystal Bradford picked up her fourth foul colliding at mid court with Naama Shafir. Shafir (15 points) and Andola Dortch each drained a 3-pointer thereafter, trimming the deficit from nine to two with the Chippewas’ best player watching from the bench.
Bradford, who was a mess in the last meeting with UT, redeemed herself with a game-high 20 points.
A 6-0 Toledo run made it a one-point hole with 1:12 to go before Bradford and Smith exchanged layups. Shafir, who shot just 6 of 21 and had five turnovers, missed twice in the waning seconds — once on a turnaround jumper in the paint and with seven seconds to go on a deep attempt that collided with Jessica Schroll’s outstretched hand.
"Wasn’t a good look and she blocked the shot," Shafir said. "I don’t know."
Central Michigan, which is perhaps as good as any No. 4 seed this tournament has seen, will take on No. 3 Akron in the title game at 1 p.m. today.
Toledo, meanwhile, will head home sooner than the team had anticipated. An invitation from a postseason tournament awaits, perhaps from the NCAA. But more likely the WNIT.
"There are other teams in leagues across the country that are going to make the NCAA tournament that got upset in their league tournament," Cullop said. "It’s unfortunate that’s where the [MAC’s] automatic bid goes."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.