UT cold but still prevails 42-31 over NIU for third-straight MAC winWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Despite shooting just 29.6 percent from the floor, the Rockets clamped down on the defensive end and were able to pull out a 42-31 victory over the visiting Huskies for their third-straight Mid-American Conference victory on Jan. 12 in Savage Arena.
“This was a defensive juggernaut,” Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop said. “If people came here wanting an offensive, high-powered, potent game, they’re going to leave disappointed, but if they came here wanting a Rocket victory, they got what they wanted. We keep saying it was ugly, it was this, it was that, but it was a win, and I think maybe this is our identity.
“Maybe we’re the win ugly team, and I’ll take that because I love the intensity defensively of our team.”
Cullop learned that defensive intensity from first-year Northern Illinois head coach Kathi Bennett, who was Cullop’s predecessor in her last job at Evansville.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Kathi Bennett,” Cullop said. “It’s the first time I’ve ever had a chance to coach against her, but I inherited a team there that was tremendous defensively. The one thing I told Kathi after coaching that team was that they made me appreciate that so much, and I really changed my thinking when I was at Evansville about being more defensive-minded because of her.”
Toledo (11-5, 3-0 MAC) limited Northern Illinois (6-10, 0-3 MAC) to just nine points and 13 percent shooting in the first half, and the Huskies finished 12-of-51 from the field for the game. The Rockets were led by junior guard Naama Shafir’s 12 points, while sophomore forward Lecretia Smith just missed a double-double with eight points and nine rebounds. While Toledo also shot poorly in the game, it scored 15 points off the Huskies’ 20 turnovers and outscored their bench 9-2.
“We did play good defense, and I think that was what made the difference,” Shafir said. “We need to work on some stuff on offense because we’re going to face teams that we’re going to have to hit shots.”
Marke Freeman, who came in as Northern Illinois’ leading scorer at 15.7 points per game, was limited to just nine for the contest, all of which were in the first half.
“I think we came out with a defensive intensity, and I think that’s what kept them with nine in the first half,” Smith said. “We came out and we knew we had to stop them on D because Marke Freeman obviously is a great player. I think it was a defensive effort.”
In the first half, the Rockets jumped out to a 10-3 lead by the 12:27 mark after a jumper from senior forward Melissa Goodall. Freeman hit her second three-pointer of the game with 12:14 left to play in the half to make it 10-6, but a jumper from Smith and a layup from Shafir extended Toledo’s lead to 14-6 by the 10:48 mark. The Rockets went on an 11-3 run the rest of the way and took a 25-9 lead over the Huskies into halftime.
Northern Illinois started the second half with a 10-4 run and made it 29-19 with 14:07 left to play in the game as Toledo struggled to knock down shots. By the 11:43 mark, the Rockets had only scored four points after the break and were shooting just 28 percent from the field with nine turnovers. However, the Huskies went on a scoring draught until Danielle Pulliam’s jumper with 8:27 remaining made it 32-21. Two consecutive baskets from Smith with under five to play extended Toledo’s lead to 15 by the 3:39 mark, and the Rockets held on down the stretch for the 42-31 victory.
Smith took a shot to the nose in the first half, but came back in the second half and provided a spark for Toledo. Her nose was broken earlier this year.
“The thing we always tell Lecretia is Dennis Rodman wasn’t that big, but he led the NBA in rebounding,” Cullop said. “It’s all about heart, desire, positioning [and] being intelligent, and boy is she. She provides so much intensity and energy defensively, that enthusiasm that she just kind of energizes our defense.”
The Rockets will be in action again on Jan. 15 when they travel to Ypsilanti to take on Eastern Michigan (11-6, 2-1 MAC) at noon. The game will be televised on SportsTime Ohio.