DEKALB, Ill. — All week the coveted fourth-seed in the Mid-American Conference tournament has been in plain view.
Now it’s blurry.
A pivotal stretch that got underway with a gut wrenching home loss to Western Michigan sustained another gash Thursday in a 68-59 overtime defeat at Northern Illinois.
The Rockets squandered a seven-point lead at the end of regulation and missed 10 of 11 shots in the extra period to contribute to NIU snapping a six-game losing streak before a matinee crowd of 376.
Unless Toledo lands an improbable home win Sunday over West division leader Central Michigan, the Rockets can all but forget attaining the advantages that come with the fourth seed.
Secure the fourth seed and bypass the first two rounds of the tournament. Finish fifth and a campus-site win is needed just to advance to Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.
“Both games we shot ourselves in the foot,” Inma Zanogeura said, referring to a 60-59 home loss to Western Michigan to start the week. “I don’t know if we got better from that game. If we want the fourth seed we have to make an adjustment now.”
Two other teams vying for the spot — Buffalo and Western Michigan — own tiebreakers over the Rockets (13-13, 8-7). WMU is tied with UT and Buffalo with three games left. Buffalo lost against Ohio on Wednesday.
“I’ll be honest, I’m not focused on seeding or anything like that right now,” said UT coach Tricia Cullop, whose team had won six straight over NIU. “I’m just trying to help us win games.”
Cullop anticipated a long bus ride home, replaying all of the “easy bunnies” her team accumulated on their way to another dismal shooting effort (35 percent). They went scoreless on six possession to begin overtime — four missed field goals, a turnover, and an empty trip at the free throw line — and fell behind by eight points.
Cullop elected to stick with her starting five for most of the final 15 minutes including overtime, using only one reserve — Stephanie Recker — for quick spurts. Freshman Elena de Alfredo did not play for the first time when healthy, and Cullop apparently didn’t trust other freshmen Sophie Reecher and Janice Monakana with the game on the line. Zanoguera did not disagree fatigue might have factored into a sputtering finish.
“It’s hard,” Cullop said. “You look at who they had on the floor and I wanted our best match up available, looking more so from a defensive standpoint. Giving up those two 3s in a row was unfortunate.”
Alexis Lindstrom, who made a 3 to tie late in regulation, made another to kick off overtime. Amanda Corral followed with a corner 3 when UT miscommunicated defensively after a stoppage in play.
“They were ready to knock down shots and they made us pay,” said Zanoguera, who totaled 10 points and 10 rebounds.
A Corral jumper then widened the gap to eight.
Corral could not come up big at the end of regulation. After UT’s Andola Dortch (14 points) tied it with 10 seconds left, NIU’s leading scorer dribbled in circles without firing off a shot.
Corral had 20 points, and Lindstrom 14.