The opening night of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament is too soon to begin rubbing a win in the nose of the NCAA selection committee.
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It is not too soon, though, to legitimize the committee’s snub.
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Such was the mind-set the University of Toledo carried Thursday into a first round game with Butler, which became victim No. 1 in what has the fixings to be a prolonged redemption tour at Savage Arena. The Rockets channeled their ire at the snub into a 63-49 win.
The odds-on favorite to win a second WNIT title in three years, the Rockets will host their 12th straight game in the tournament at 2 p.m. Saturday against a Youngstown State team that has fared far better at home than away.
"If we came into this tournament and we lost the first game then everyone in the country would say it was a good choice," said Toledo coach Tricia Cullop, who has needed to regroup her team for this tournament in four straight years.
"Winning games doesn’t verify you should be in either. But we certainly don’t want to prove people right."
The win, which was witnessed by the largest crowd — 2,546 — to turn out for a Toledo WNIT opener, was like many others in a season that is one win shy of matching the school-record 29 produced in the 2010-11 campaign.
An attacking defense created 24 turnovers and held an opponent for the 18th time to under 50 points. It also forced a shot clock violation late, which coupled with Naama Shafir’s ensuing runner in the paint to push the lead to 12 with 4:22 left. Shots fell intermittently on offense but rang in at key moments, such as Stephanie Recker’s 3-pointer from the corner to go up 40-30, equaling the largest lead to that point.
That tried-and-tested formula, which has produced 28 wins against three losses, would have caused discomfort this weekend to an opponent in the grander tournament.
Alas, the Rockets do not have the chance to show what they would have done in the NCAA tournament, thanks equally to a semifinal loss in the Mid-American Conference tournament and a regular season schedule light on notable wins.
"We took it as motivation," said Inma Zanoguera, who drained daggers from 15 feet and had 16 points. "We really want to go out there and win the WNIT. That’s our main goal."
A Web site predicts they will.
According to omnirankings.com, Toledo has anywhere from a 21 percent to 24 percent chance of winning the title on April 6, the highest probability given to anyone in the 64-team field. The Rockets are 11-2 in the WNIT the last four years, and have hosted all but one game. Zanoguera said she and her teammates were "expecting" the news that Saturday’s game will be played at Savage Arena.
Youngstown State, which advanced with a 63-51 decision over visiting Indiana State, finished second in the Horizon League regular season. The Penguins are 23-9 overall but just 9-8 away. They are no stranger to Cullop, who said she voted for YSU often in a mid-major weekly poll.
Forward Brandi Brown, who averages 20 points, reminds Cullop of Butler’s Daress McClung, who spread her 18 points Thursday all over the floor. She hit two of BU’s nine 3s.
Fans will find it disconcerting that Cullop drew parallels to YSU’s offense, which often empties the low post and brings five players to the perimeter, to the one that beat Toledo twice. Central Michigan runs it too.
"It’s not going to be startling to our team to have to match up with that," Cullop said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.