CLEVELAND — Maybe someday the picture really will be worth a thousand words.
It was worth none Saturday.
After the biggest win of their lives, Tricia Cullop and her Toledo women’s basketball team were at a loss.
IN PICTURES: UT women 82, Northern Illinois 71
There was Cullop atop a blue and gold ladder, scissors in one hand, a camera in the other. She sliced off the last lock of the net at Quicken Loans Arena, then, with a smile wider than the Maumee River, snapped a ladder selfie with her tearful but roaring team.
The Rockets were going dancing for the first time since 2001, and how sweet it was.
“I’m still in shock,” Mikaela Boyd said after their 82-71 win against Northern Illinois in the Mid-American Conference women’s tournament final. “I’ve never smiled this hard in my life. We have such an amazing fan base, and to be able to bring a championship back to Toledo, it’s indescribable.”
Cullop gave it a shot, only to be left searching.
“Words can’t describe how this feels,” she said.
We hesitate to say Toledo deserved this moment.
As this arena’s most famous occupant once said in his homecoming letter, “Nothing is given. Everything is earned.” That is true. But we’ll say this anyway: Cullop and Toledo deserved this.
In many ways, Toledo has long been the standard in the MAC. It has the best crowds, the best institutional commitment, and perhaps the best coach.
Cullop has knocked on the door just about every one of her nine years with the Rockets, winning more than 70 percent of her MAC games and a WNIT championship along the way.
All that was missing — after so much heartbreak in this building over the years — was the only thing she truly coveted.
“I don’t know if anybody’s ever wanted it as bad as we’ve wanted it for so many years,” Cullop said. “There’s been a yearning.”
Which is why this was so special for so many people.
First, of course, is this remarkable Rockets team. Of all the talented teams Cullop has rolled out, nobody could have imagined this one — a group with only two seniors thought to be a year away from challenging for a MAC title — would be the one that slaked the thirst. They were picked to finish second in their division and entered the league tournament seeded sixth. There were no players represented on the all-league first team and had only one on the second (Janice Monakana). Heck, they didn’t even have a MAC player of the week this season.
They truly are a team, as we saw again in the championship game, their 10-deep crew ultimately wearing down the Huskies.
Above all, this day belonged to them. Yet they were eager to share it — with the teams that came before them, the university, the community.
The victory meant so much because it matters so much. You don’t truly appreciate the connection the Toledo women have with our city until you go to the mausoleums pretty much anywhere else. The Rockets ranked 24th nationally in attendance last year, averaging 4,050 fans per game at Savage Arena. For perspective, their crowds would rank second in the Pac-12 and in the top half of every major league.
“We have some of the best support from the top down at the University of Toledo that you’ll find for women’s basketball in the country, from our president to our athletic director to everyone on our campus, and our fan base,” Cullop said. “We have women’s basketball season ticket holders that have been in our stands for 20 years. It’s rare.
“To have the home-court advantage that we’ve had, to have been top 30 in the country in attendance for the last five years, that’s special. It’s fun to work in an environment where people care.”
Even more fun to win in one.
On Saturday, their supporters filled three sections and scattered throughout the lower bowl of Quicken Loans Arena. Among those cheering loudest was Toledo president Sharon Gaber, who booked a morning flight from a commitment in Virginia to be at the game.
Athletic director Mike O’Brien called it a “great day for the university.”
“I was still nervous even when we were up 11 with 10 seconds to go,” he said. “I wanted it badly, but so did all of Rocket Nation.”
After years of climbing, Cullop and Toledo at last reached the top of the ladder.
The Rockets earned what they deserved.