The Mid-American Conference standings foretold a mismatch Sunday when runaway West division winner Central Michigan carried a 14-1 league mark into Savage Arena.
University of Toledo, lagging six games behind CMU, figured to amount to another hopeless victim in the Chippewas’ drive toward a second straight league tournament crown.
Then a competitive game broke out.
PHOTO GALLERY: UT women lose to CMU 80-77
The Rockets’ took a 10-point lead. Then visions of a stunning upset evaporated in part over foul trouble hindering the efforts of two UT starters.
The Chips made up nine points with Inma Zanoguera and Brianna Jones on the bench in the second half and held on for an 80-77 win.
UT’s loss, which came despite a career-high 24 points by senior Janelle Reed-Lewis and a decent look at the buzzer by Ana Capotosto, likely eliminated the Rockets (13-14, 8-8) from landing the No. 4 seed in the tournament. CMU, which swept UT for the first time since 1988, ensured a bid to the semifinals and remained even with Bowling Green for the top seed.
“Central Michigan is a pretty good team and it could have been a lot worse,” said Reed-Lewis, who bested her previous high by eight points.
Moments after Reed-Lewis made a 3-pointer for UT to go up 58-49 with 11:45 to go, Jones incurred her fourth foul and took a seat near Zanoguera, who picked up her fourth foul less than a minute earlier.
“It took a little momentum out of us,” Reed-Lewis said.
UT maintained a nine-point lead on a Capotosto 3 about two minutes later before CMU embarked on an 11-2 run, with most of it coming without Zanoguera or Jones on the floor. Niki DiGuilio, Crystal Bradford, and Taylor Johnson all hit from outside for a 65-64 lead — CMU’s first since three minutes into the game.
“It’s too bad we got into the foul trouble we did,” UT coach Tricia Cullop said. “I wish we could have had Inma in there during that key stretch when they were making the run. We have to be a little bit smarter in how we give up our fouls.”
UT’s only hope for the fourth seed — which comes with two byes into the quarterfinal round — is to close the regular season with wins over Eastern Michigan and Ball State and cross its fingers in hopes that Buffalo loses out and Western Michigan drops a game. In all likelihood, UT will host a first round match up a week from today.
Zanoguera fouled out with two minutes left on an unnecessary reach-in after a turnover. DiGuilio made one of two free throws for a 71-69 lead.
Jones got her fifth foul with 36 seconds left trying to draw a charge in the paint against Bradford. Bradford, one of four 1,000-point scorers for CMU, made twice at the line to go up six. She finished with 23 points — matching Johnson’s output — and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Reed-Lewis’ fourth 3 made it a three-point game with 32 seconds left.
A three-point play by UT’s Andola Dortch trimmed the deficit to 78-77 before DiGuilio made two free throws with 11 seconds left.
Cullop’s plan for a drive-and-dish on the final possession faltered when Dortch got extended in the lane and forced an errant pass back to Capotosto who could not catch the ball cleanly before drawing back iron.
“I would have loved to see what could have happened had she had a clean pass,” Cullop said. “I think Ana was feeling pretty good about that shot.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.