Toledo’s Mariella Santucci, center, is embraced by Mikaela Boyd after the Rockets defeated Northern Illinois to win the MAC championship at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland on Saturday. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
CLEVELAND — University of Toledo coach Tricia Cullop recalls many trips when she was forced to sit in the press room at Quicken Loans Arena and lament a tough Mid-American Conference tournament loss.
Cullop, in her ninth season as UT women’s basketball head coach, and the sixth-seeded Rockets ended what has, at times, been a painful drought with an 82-71 victory over fourth-seeded Northern Illinois in the MAC tournament title game on Saturday.
IN PICTURES: UT women 82, Northern Illinois 71
Playing in its first MAC final since 2010, Toledo won its first conference title since 2001 and will advance to play in the NCAA tournament.
“It wears on you,” Cullop said.
“I’ve sat here many a time sad about my seniors and what they didn’t get to experience before they graduated.
“I couldn’t be more proud for the two seniors [Janice Monakana and Sophie Reecher] that we have. ... To see them go out on this kind of a note, to get a chance to play in the NCAA tournament is just an incredible thing, and I hope they’re not the last seniors who get to experience it.”
With confetti flying and many UT players in tears, the Rockets were the last team standing in a wild conference tournament that saw the top three seeds all lose in the quarterfinals.
“I was in tears of joy,” UT sophomore Olivia Cunningham said.
“Pretty much as soon as the buzzer went off, I couldn’t hold the tears anymore. I’m just really happy for us. We worked really hard all season to get to this moment.”
What has, at times, been a rocky journey this season — Toledo finished tied for third in the MAC West in the regular season with a 12-6 record — has seen the Rockets peak at the right time, winning four MAC tournament games in six days and reeling off eight straight wins overall.
“All of the MAC West Division [games] prepared us for this because it was tremendous this season,” Cullop said. “It was one of the best MAC seasons overall from top to bottom that I’ve seen. The parity was incredible, a lot of great coaches, a lot of great players in our league right now.”
The final game of the tournament featured the top scoring team in the conference in Northern Illinois and the top defensive team in the conference in Toledo.
In a tight game that was tied at halftime and had the Huskies with a one-point lead entering the fourth quarter, the Rockets won thanks to a 34-point final quarter.
“I think the main thing for us is just remaining calm, and we just focused on our defense,” Monakana said. “Like all year long, we’ve said our defense fuels our offense, so getting stops and scoring was kind of what we focused on. And every time we got a stop, I think that kind of fueled our offense and we started to score toward the end.”
Sophomore Mikaela Boyd, the tournament MVP, had 27 points to lead Toledo. Cunningham came off the bench to score 20 points, and freshman Mariella Santucci had 13 points.
Ally Lehman’s 22 points paced Northern Illinois, while Renee Sladek had 15 points, and Janae Poisson scored 13.
The game got off to a sluggish start as Northern Illinois led 13-12 after the first quarter, with Toledo shooting 6-of-18 from the field and 0-for-6 from the 3-point line.
The Huskies led despite a 5-of-22 mark from the field and 1-of-9 on 3s.
The scoring picked up in the second quarter, and the Rockets took a 30-23 lead with 2:11 left in the half after a 6-0 run thanks to two 3s from Cunningham.
Northern Illinois answered with a 7-0 run to close out the half after a Poisson layup and two free throws, a jumper from Lehman, and a free throw from Sladek tied the score at 30-30.
In the third quarter, the Huskies pushed the lead to 45-38 with 3:37 to go after two free throws from Cassidy Glenn.
Toledo answered with a 7-1 run, capped by a Cunningham jumper and a free throw by Sarah St-Fort, cutting the NIU lead to 46-45 with 2:09 left. UT’s Kaayla McIntyre tied the game at 47 with a layup. A Mikayla Voigt jumper was followed by a free throw from Monakana, and the Huskies held a 49-48 lead heading into the final quarter.
A 3-pointer by NIU’s Courtney Woods a minute into the fourth gave the Huskies a 54-50 lead, but the Rockets went ahead for good with a 14-0 run that gave them a 64-54 lead with 4:54 left. The run was fueled by five points from Santucci and four each from Boyd and Cunningham.
“In the huddle, we just tried to keep each other encouraged,” Cunningham said.
“We had plenty of time, plenty of the game left, so we were just trying to pump each other up and not get down, and focus on the task at hand. We were really focused on trying to get stops.
“Defense wins championships, so that’s really what we were focusing on.”
Toledo stretched the lead to 12 in the final two minutes, and sealed the game with free throws.
“I think, personally, I’m still in shock,” Boyd said. “I have never smiled this hard in my life. It feels really great. We have such an amazing fan base, and to be able to bring a championship back to Toledo is indescribable.”
An incredibly balanced team with players on the bench capable of contributing at any time, Toledo took on any and all challenges the past six days.
“With this team, it’s like it could be anyone’s night on any given day, because you have to scout everyone, because you just never know with our team,” Monakana said. “So, from the beginning, I’ve always said and I’ve said it to everyone on our team that I just knew that we can do something big. At the start of the year, we were focusing on the little things that would help us win a MAC championship, and we did those things.”
Contact Brian Buckey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6110.