Toledo soon will be adding another banner in the rafters in Savage Arena. The Rockets (22-6, 12-3 MAC) clinched the Mid-American Conference West Division title with a 62-48 victory over Ball State (12-16, 6-9 MAC) Saturday before 4,308 fans on “Senior Day.”
“To secure the division title at home is very special, not only to our seniors, but to our entire team and our tremendous fans,” Toledo Head Coach Tricia Cullop said.
Junior Melissa Goodall led three UT players in double figures with 13 points, five caroms and two blocked shots. Freshman Lecretia Smith totaled 10 points with nine boards off the bench, and senior Tanika Mays had 11 points with eight rebounds, snapping the Rockets’ three-game losing skid to the Cardinals. Those three post players also helped the home team post a decisive 24-8 edge in points in the paint.
“Our seniors and upperclassmen provided great leadership to ensure the victory, but I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Lecretia had an outstanding game,” Cullop said. “She showed tremendous tenacity on the boards.”
UT trailed 24-22 at the intermission, but outscored BSU 40-24 in the second half to capture its first outright division crown since the 2000-01 campaign and fifth overall division title (’98, ’99, ’01, ’03, ’10).
“We were a little slow offensively in the first half,” Mays said. “We needed to play more relaxed and play more of our game in the second period. We needed to get back to the basics and do what we do best.”
The story of today’s divisional showdown was Toledo’s stellar defense. The MAC West champs limited the Cardinals to 26.4 percent (14 of 53) shooting from the field, ending their two-year reign at the top of the division.
“Ball State has been the team that has eluded us since I’ve been here, and our kids were pretty fired up for that reason,” Cullop said.
Another key factor in Toledo registering its 12-straight home victory was its ability to get to the free-throw line and convert in the second half. The Rockets shot 16 of 19 (84.2 percent) from the charity line in the final 20 minutes, compared to BSU’s 5-of-6 (83.3 percent) after halftime.
The teams traded baskets to begin the second half, before McDonald and Benning each hit a triple to extend the visitors’ lead to 34-29 at 15:55. Benning’s field goal would be their last for the next four minutes.
Mays started the comeback with a layup and junior Jessica Williams followed with a trey to knot the score for the sixth time in the contest. UT’s Smith then hit a layup, and Goodall followed with a traditional three-point play at the 13-minute mark to take a lead it would not surrender.
With the Rockets not quite hitting on all cylinders offensively, they were unable to put the Cardinals away early but their perseverance paid as Smith continued to be strong inside and tallied four-consecutive points to make it an 11-point difference, 52-41, at 5:40. The closest BSU would get for the remainder of the game with nine points.
Toledo shot 38.5 percent (20 of 52) from the field, including 35.7 percent (5 of 14) from beyond the arc, and 68.0 percent (17-of-25) from the charity stripe. The Rockets also held a commanding 42-34 edge on the glass, as they had five players with at least five caroms.
“I’m happy that we won the division, of course,” Mays said. “We worked hard for it, and I’m proud of my teammates and coaches.
“I’m going to miss playing at home in front of all our great fans. I glad we were able to pull out the win.”
UT closes out the regular season Tuesday, March 2, in Ypsilanti against Eastern Michigan.