The four seniors on the University of Toledo women’s basketball team received gift bags at a ceremony prior to what might have been their final home game.
Andola Dortch refused to peek inside.
“I’m going to wait until after the season,” the point guard said. “Senior night, you look at everything and it makes it feel like the end. We still have a long way to go.”
The Rockets unwrapped perhaps their finest performance of the season Wednesday, dismantling Eastern Michigan 88-52 to remain in contention for the coveted fourth seed in the Mid-American Conference tournament.
Toledo, whose outside shooting on many nights is a sad sight, posted season highs of 12 3-pointers and 24 assists. The 36-point win — the margin stood once at 39 — is Toledo’s widest of the conference season, eclipsing a 28-point pasting of Kent State a month ago.
Dortch had nine points — all on 3s — to go with six assists. Her classmates, Brianna Jones (17 points, five rebounds) and Janelle Reed-Lewis (13 points, three assists), likewise gave noteworthy efforts to the program’s fourth straight win over EMU. Mariah Carson, who missed this season with a chronic back injury, was honored before the game for her role as student manager.
“All four of them have really done a great job in their careers here and we owe them an awful lot,” coach Tricia Cullop said. “It was special to see them have their senior night be as good of a team effort as it was tonight. I thought they led the way.”
Whether the foursome takes the court for another game at Savage Arena depends on the outcomes of two games this Saturday. Should UT win at Ball State, and should Buffalo lose at home to Kent State, the Rockets will edge Buffalo for the fourth seed and earn an automatic berth in the MAC tournament quarterfinals. If Saturday’s scenario does not unfold, UT will host a first-round game Monday.
Cullop wrote her seniors a card before the game thanking them for leading the program through an adverse season. UT (14-14, 9-8) is laboring through its worst season in Cullop’s six years, but she credits her seniors for “continuing to be persistent and resilient and showing up every day being coachable.”
Adversity has embodied the senior class. Dortch early in her career blew out one knee, returned, and blew out her other knee. Jones left Central Catholic for Illinois as a top-50 recruit and transferred home within a year. Reed-Lewis obtained custody of her teenage brother last year. Carson’s back troubles undermined a promising career in the low post.
“We’ve all been through a lot of personal obstacles and I think for us to let that go away before we step onto the court shows a lot of maturity,” said Jones, who missed matching her career high by two points.
The Rockets held EMU scoreless for seven minutes in the first half while building most of an 18-0 run. Their largest margin of the half came on an Elena Alfredo 3-pointer to go up 30-13. Hers was one of eight 3s UT hit before halftime, a staggering number for an oft-cold shooting team whose clips from outside in MAC play include 3 of 26, 1 of 15, and 2 of 20.
Dortch, Alfredo, Ana Capotosto, and Stephanie Recker all made more than one 3 for the Rockets, who shredded EMU’s 2-3 zone with a season-best 52 percent shooting from the arc.
“I think it really rings true,” Cullop said. “When one person gets a hot hand it looks a lot easier for everybody else.”
Cullop estimates her defense played a 2-3 zone for 95 percent of the game, a strategy in part devised to slow EMU’s stalwart freshman Cha Sweeney.
Sweeney, of Rogers, led the Eagles (16-12, 6-11) with 23 points but she needed 22 shots to do it. Sweeney, EMU’s all-time freshman leading scorer, was 4 of 14 from outside.
“I’ve always been a big fan of hers,” Cullop said.