CORVALLIS, Ore. — The season for the University of Toledo women’s basketball team did not end the way it envisioned.
With a young and talented team, Toledo figured it could be a factor in the Mid-American Conference, but the Rockets exceeded even their own expectations on the way to their first MAC tournament title since 2001.
An eight-game winning streak to close the season had the Rockets thinking big in the NCAA tournament. A hot-shooting Creighton team scored early and often on the way to a 76-49 win on Friday, making Toledo’s return to the tournament short-lived.
“I had a friend of mine send me a text after we won the [MAC] championship,” UT coach Tricia Cullop said. “She said, ‘I’m sure you’ve had teams that were more talented, that were older, that were predicted to do it and didn’t. Then you have this young team that did it. I’m sure when the season started you weren’t predicting this.’
“I don’t think anybody in this room was predicting this,” Cullop continued, “but I think the great thing about it is they did it, and we did it riding the shoulders of some really young kids.”
Toledo challenged itself in the nonconference schedule, earning four wins against Atlantic 10 teams, including a 76-72 victory at traditional power Dayton. The only setbacks early for the Rockets were a two-point loss to UCLA in Cancun and an 85-68 home loss to Notre Dame.
After a challenging nonconference slate, Toledo lost its MAC opener at home to Ball State, then went through a stretch of three straight losses in the middle of January.
After overcoming several injuries, the Rockets got healthy and righted the ship with four straight wins down the stretch, including victories at Northern Illinois and Ball State. Toledo finished the conference season at 12-6 and tied for third place in the MAC West with Northern Illinois.
The hot play to close the season continued in the MAC tournament, which saw the Rockets win four games in six days, capped with an 82-71 win against Northern Illinois in the title game.
“We just did a good job of focusing in,” UT senior Janice Monakana said. “The last two games in our conference leading up to our conference tournament, we were playing great defense, and that fueled our offense, and that’s kind of what has been the key for us this year.”
After a captivating run back to the NCAA tournament, Toledo loses the leadership of Monakana and fellow senior Sophie Reecher. However, the Rockets return most of its roster, which will try to build on the experience this season provided.
“This game will help,” UT sophomore Mikaela Boyd said after the loss to Creighton. “Now we have some experience. I think it will be good for us going forward. I think that the future is very bright for us. This youth has gained experience, and next year we’ll be better.”
Toledo had three representatives on the All-MAC team in Monakana, Boyd (second team), and junior Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott (third team) but relied on a team effort all season.
Monakana, the leading scorer for UT at 12.4 points per game, was only 19th in the conference in scoring.
The Rockets had four players average double figures in Monakana, Boyd, Bravo-Harriott, and sophomore Kaayla McIntyre. Freshman Mariella Santucci, named to the MAC all-freshman team, came on at the end of the season, and the UT bench contributed when called upon.
“I’m so proud of them that they won 11 out of the last 12 ... to get here so we could be in this arena [Friday night],” Cullop said after the loss.
“Winning so many games in a short amount of time to do it showed a great amount of toughness and fortitude to get to that point. We did it being very unselfish and humble, and different kids are stepping up every night. I’m so proud of how they did it, and I’m proud of those kids in the locker room because they fought so hard to get here.”
Contact Brian Buckey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6110.