UT clinches MAC outright titleWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
In front of 4,557 at Savage Arena on Sunday afternoon, the Toledo women’s basketball team clinched its second outright Mid-American Conference regular season title in the last three years with a 48-38 win over Eastern Michigan.
Facing a tough zone defense in a contest in which Eagles’ head coach Tory Verdi tried to slow the pace of the game as much as possible, the Rockets were able to overcome a subpar offensive outing and several missed opportunities in the paint to pick up their second-straight win over EMU after losing the previous four to their MAC West Division rival.
“I’m proud of our players,” UT head coach Tricia Cullop said. “I thought Eastern [Michigan] tried to throw a different style of basketball at us where they took the air out of the ball and tried to play a lot lower [number] of possessions. I thought it was a good test for our players at this point in the season.”
Toledo (26-2, 14-1 MAC) was led by senior forward Lecretia Smith, who turned in a double-double with 10 points and a game-high 12 rebounds to go with two steals in 28 minutes of action.
“Of that senior class, she’s probably the least talked about but the most important,” Cullop said of Smith. “She does all the dirty work. She’ll go get a rebound. She’ll set an amazing screen. Everybody reads about the point that was scored, but they forgot about the screen that got the person open.
“She’s not afraid to get on the floor for loose balls. She gets a lot of deflections, and she’s a 5-9 post player. I don’t know another 5-9 post player around, but she plays the post because she’s so aggressive and so athletic.”
Things were sloppy in the early going for both teams offensively. With less than eight minutes remaining in the first half, UT was up 12-11 but was just three-of-17 from the floor, while EMU was five-of-15 from the field. The Rockets finished the game by shooting 26.2 percent from the floor, making just 16 field goals in the contest.
“I had a feeling they were going to slow it down, but not quite as much as what they did,” Cullop said of Eastern Michigan’s gameplan. “We’ve seen that before in the past with a couple of other teams—not this year—but that’s fine. It was a great opportunity for us to fine-tune some things. You never know what you’re going to see in conference tournament play.”
Despite the early offensive struggles, the Rockets closed out the first half on a 15-7 run to lead 27-18 at the break. And while Toledo only scored 21 second half points thanks in part to EMU’s style of fewer possessions, sophomore forward Inma Zanoguera (14 points, five rebounds) hit a jumper and then a three-pointer in front of the UT bench on her team’s ensuing possession that made it 46-34 Rockets with 2:18 to go.
Eastern Michigan (8-20, 6-9 MAC) was unable to get Toledo’s lead back down to single digits after that as UT picked up the victory and clinched the MAC regular season title.
“This senior group, to win their second [outright] MAC championship is special,” Cullop said. “It’s only one of the goals that we want this year. Obviously they’re excited about today, but this isn’t the same feeling that maybe we had two years ago when it was the first one we’d had in a decade.
“This is only a tip of the iceberg of what we’re looking for. What we really want is still ahead of us, and I know this senior group’s going to keep everybody composed and ready.”
Toledo will be in action again on Mar. 6 when it hosts Ball State (15-13, 12-3 MAC) at Savage Arena in its regular season finale at 7 p.m. The Cardinals have the second-best record in the MAC behind the Rockets.
Cullop said she didn’t plan to dial anything back against Ball State just because her team clinched the regular season title and secured the top seed in the MAC Tournament, either.
“I think any time I’ve watched a team that maybe has saved something, it seems like you lose a piece of yourself,” Cullop said of facing the Cardinals on Mar. 6. “We don’t want to lose our identity just because we’re trying to get ready for the tournament.”