CLEVELAND — Tricia Cullop walked into the interview room at Quicken Loans Arena, grabbed a seat, and gushed about the mental state of her team.
“Our mental focus has been very sharp lately,” the University of Toledo coach said after an impressive 72-61 triumph Wednesday over Western Michigan in a Mid-American Conference women’s basketball tournament second-round game.
Today Cullop’s mentally strong Rockets will face a team with physical concerns. Followed Friday, perhaps, by another wounded opponent.
A scenario is beginning to crystallize in which Toledo could make an improbable run in the MAC tournament. It starts with a 2:30 p.m. match up with third-seed Akron.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view photos of the game.
The Zips’ best player, 2012-13 MAC player of the year Rachel Tecca, has a bad knee and might be operating under full capacity in the quarterfinals. Whoever wins the rematch of Akron’s 20-point regular season rout at Savage Arena will face a Central Michigan team with a major vulnerability.
Less than an hour after she was announced MAC player of the year Tuesday, prolific forward Crystal Bradford injured her knee in practice. The 20-point, 12-rebound performer will not participate in CMU’s drive for a second straight conference tournament title.
To recap, two MAC players of the year stood in the way of UT advancing to the title game and only one still is standing — and on a surgically repaired knee at that. Tecca left after three minutes in the regular-season finale against Bowling Green. She is practicing, according to the Akron Beacon Journal, but is taking medication for pain.
“Whether she plays or not we’re expecting a great battle,” Cullop said. “We didn’t play well against them at home. That was probably one of the worst games we played all year. I think our players are excited for this opportunity to have a rematch just to show them we’re better than the last time we faced them.”
Toledo (16-15) avenged two regular season losses to Western Michigan and likely ensured it will not suffer its first sub-.500 season under Cullop.
Ana Capotosto made her first seven shots from the field to finish with 21 points, matching her career high. She added a team-high seven rebounds.
Four others cracked double figures scoring — starters Andola Dortch (12), Inma Zanoguera (11), and Janelle Reed-Lewis (10), and freshman reserve Janice Monakana (10). Monakana rolled on the floor in agony after turning her ankle in the second half, only to check in a couple minutes later. She nailed a 3 and drew a charge.
Capotosto (8 of 10 shooting) drained four of her five 3s in the second half, the last one for a 15-point lead that eventually grew to 18.
Western Michigan coach Shane Clipfell, who recruited Capotosto a little when he was at Michigan State, kept an eye on her in shootaround.
“She wasn’t shooting it very well,” Clipfell said. “And that scared me.”
This is the kind of performance Cullop wishes she could bottle for the remainder of the tournament, however long that may be. Her team shot 44 percent from the field, dissected WMU’s zone with seven 3-pointers, and limited the Broncos’ Marquisha Harris to just two points in the second half. Harris, who averaged 18 points and eight rebounds against UT in the regular season, finished with 10 and 13. Miracle Woods led WMU (13-18) with 23 points.
After confounding Ohio on Monday with a 2-3 zone, Cullop went back to it. Toledo’s success holding WMU to 4 of 19 outside shooting made her regret she had not played more of it in the first two meetings.
“The nice thing about playing zone at this point of the season is you have a lot of kids playing on tired legs,” Cullop said.
Fatigue, thus far in the tournament, has not affected the Rockets. They are hitting shots, boxing out, and getting on the floor for loose balls.
“I think it’s probably because we’re in the MAC tournament,” Capotosto said. “This is what we play for every year. Coming here, it’s a reality check for us, like, the season could be over.”