Rockets begin defense of titleWritten by Jason Mack | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The UT women’s basketball team begins defense of its regular season Mid-American Conference title Jan. 5 at Western Michigan. The Rockets were the preseason favorite to repeat as champions, but that was before senior guard Naama Shafir was knocked out for the season Nov. 25 with a torn ACL.
“We’re trying to get the best we can once we get to league play,” Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop said. “This is what matters the most. This is where you put it on the line. We’re really excited to open up MAC season. We tested our team with a tough schedule, especially doing a lot of it without Naama. We’re excited to see where that took us. Hopefully we learned the lessons we needed to learn and improved some things along the way so we’re even more prepared.”
Toledo finished the non-conference schedule 7-5, including a pair of losses to undefeated No. 17 Green Bay (12-0). The Rockets also earned a pair of wins on the road against Big Ten opponents Indiana (5-10) and Northwestern (10-4). Cullop said the tough non-conference schedule has helped prepare the team for another run at the MAC title.
“We’ve got great leadership,” she said. “If you look at our scoring, we’re very balanced. We’re not relying on one or two people to carry the scoring load for us. We’re shooting the ball well from three-point range. Despite Naama’s injury, we still have good depth at a lot of positions. Our depth is really going to pay off for us. This team has really come together. Because we challenged them against great competition, we’re prepared for conference play.”
One reason the Rockets have continued to succeed is the play of senior guard Courtney Ingersoll. Since Shafir’s injury, Ingersoll has scored in double figures every game except an 81-42 blowout against Cleveland State when she played only 18 minutes. She’s averaging 13.4 point, 4.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game in that stretch while shooting a red-hot 29 of 51 (56.8 percent) from three-point range.
“She’s really stepped forward with great leadership skills and consistency,” Cullop said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the qualities I see in her day in and day out. We saw that from the moment Naama went down. Her positive attitude and willingness to do whatever we ask has really helped us be in the position we are. That’s what you want out of a senior.”
Pairing up in the backcourt with Ingersoll is sophomore guard Andola Dortch, who is developing into an offensive threat after displaying lock-down defense last season. Dortch has taken over as the captain of the offense in Shafir’s absence, averaging 12.7 point, 4.7 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game.
“She’s really grown a lot,” Cullop said. Last year she kind of fed off Naama. This year she is learning to generate the enthusiasm herself to lead our team. The tenacity she’s always brought on the defensive end, now she’s bringing that more on the offensive end as well.”
Junior center Yolanda Richardson has struggled to consistently maintain the dominant inside play she displayed in the WNIT, but she is hitting stride heading into MAC play. In the two final non-conference games, Richardson averaged 16.5 point, 8.5 rebounds and 3 assists per game as she was named MAC West player of the week.
“If we’re going to be successful, we need that inside/outside punch,” Cullop said. “Yolanda has always had it in her. To see it emerge lately has been a blessing and something we hope to see on a consistent basis. It’s so nice having three post players we feel are stronger than a lot in the league with [sophomore Brianna Jones], [junior Kyle Baumgartner] and Yolanda. I think we’re pretty blessed.”
Despite graduating seniors Lauren Prochaska and Tracy Pontius, defending MAC Tournament champion Bowling Green (11-3, 1-0 MAC) is still UT’s biggest competition for the title. The Rockets host BG at noon on Feb. 11.
“They graduated some kids, but Stephen’s proven she is a force to be reckoned with as well as Alexis Rogers, a transfer from Duke,” Cullop said. “She’s really emerging as a consistent scorer. They’re definitely going to be a team you’ll have to be weary of. I believe there are five teams on paper right now that are capable of winning the league, and they are definitely one of them. There’s Eastern Michigan, Central Michigan, Miami, BG and us. We would love nothing better than to have a shot at the conference tournament title. We’re taking it one game at a time though, and the most important game for us is the one ahead of us.”
The game ahead of Toledo is against Western Michigan (3-10). UT dominated the Broncos 76-39 at home last season and narrowly escaped with a 63-60 overtime win on the road for the sweep.
“We have to use this experience to have better focus on the road,” Cullop said. “Despite the score of games, Western Michigan continues to play hard. Despite their record, they’ve never put their heads down. I watched their game against Temple live on the internet. I was really impressed, because Temple could never put them away. That’s a dangerous team to go into their home knowing they are young and don’t know any better at a lot of positions. Young teams are very scary. We’re certainly going to have to bring our best effort. We’re not taking any game lightly this year.”
The Rockets host Central Michigan (8-6) at 2 p.m. on Jan. 8. UT split the series with the Chippewas last season with a 78-74 loss on the road and an 85-75 win at home.
“It’s very important in conference play to take care of your home,” Cullop said. “Away wins are hard to come by. If you don’t’ consistently protect your home court, it’s very difficult to win the league. We’ve done a good job of that the past few years. It’s something we’re going to have to buckle down and make sure we get back to our winning ways at home.”