Inma Zanoguera dashed down the court, the game clock dwindling from six seconds to three to the brink of desperation.
The forward stopped her dribble at the left arc and uncorked a shot with an end result symbolic of the season being had by the University of Toledo women’s basketball team.
Much like their captain’s near miss at the buzzer, the Rockets are awfully close to being awfully good. There was little separation Sunday between their unseasoned collection of rookies and untested veterans and the team ranked No. 18 in the country.
PHOTO GALLERY: UT women lose to No. 18 Purdue
Purdue escaped Savage Arena with an 81-79 victory, an outcome for Toledo that inspires confidence rather than creates doubt in the infancy of a season riddled with question marks.
To hang tight, the Rockets first had to weather a first half storm with just one available substitute, the result of Zanoguera’s foul trouble and a couple of injuries. Just as the team’s injury report seemed ready to shrink it got longer.
Freshman Olivia Braun, who suffered a sprained ankle a day earlier, swapped roles with Brianna Jones, who scored a career-high 12 points in her first appearance. Also, starting forward Stephanie Recker was limited to 14 minutes after falling hard on her back in the first half.
“Very, very proud of the mental toughness and the perseverance that our team showed today against a very, very good team,” said UT coach Tricia Cullop, whose resolute team trailed at halftime by just two points 41-39.
Cullop, a former Purdue captain, saw her team cut the deficit to a single point on three occasions at the end.
But they never could seize the lead behind the backing of 4,012 fans, which provided what Purdue’s Courtney Moses called “a tournament atmosphere.”
Mistakes befitting of an inexperienced team represent the current gap between Toledo and high-end teams like Purdue and Drexel, the latter having felled the Rockets a week ago in a competitive affair.
A few precious late possessions were squandered by bad shots. Good looks didn’t fall at key times, as Zanoguera missed three 3s in the final 1:30.
Guards struggled to stay with Purdue’s Moses, who carved Toledo’s zone from the 3-point line (4 of 7) as well as with baseline cuts like the one for a layup that put Purdue (3-0) in front 76-73 with 4:11 left.
Moses, who somehow went scoreless in the season opener against Ball State, finished with 30 points.
“When she knew we found her on the 3-point line against the zone she snuck behind us,” Cullop said. “She’s so smart. She has an incredible IQ.”
A critical mistake at the end proved costly for Toledo. Cullop stood several feet onto the court imploring her players to foul on Purdue’s final possession but no one bothered to look up for a good 15 seconds until Andola Dortch sent K.K. Houser to the line with 6.7 seconds to go.
“If you saw me going into hysterics, that wasn’t a fit,” Cullop said. “That was me wanting to foul.”
Thus, there could be no carefully orchestrated final set involving, say, Dortch (22 points), Janelle Reed-Lewis (14 points, career-high eight assists), freshman Janice Monakana (15 points), or Zanoguera (11 points).
Give Zanoguera another three or four seconds and maybe she drives to the basket. Instead, by the time she rebounded Houser’s second free throw there were only about six ticks on the clock, barely enough time to scurry down the floor and fire off a good look.
Off the front end. Into the air. Off the cylinder.
“We proved something even though we didn’t win,” Zanoguera said. “We’re a team of fighters. We have young people but we have very good heart.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.