Freshman guard Mariella Santucci scored a career-high 21 points to lead Toledo to a 72-65 victory over No. 7 seed Buffalo in semifinal Mid-American Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament action at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Friday.
The No. 6 seed Rockets (24-8) advance to the MAC Championship Game vs. No. 4 seed Northern Illinois (21-10) at 11 a.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network). The Huskies demolished No. 8 seed Western Michigan, 83-55, in the day’s first game.It will be Toledo’s first appearance in the MAC title game since 2010. The last time the Rockets won the MAC Tournament was in 2001, the very first year the women’s tournament was played in Quicken Loans Arena (then known as Gund Arena).
Santucci, who was shooting 29 percent from the field entering the contest, connecting on 9 of 14 shots, including 2 of 3 from three-point range. Junior guard Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott added 12 points, and sophomore guard Mikaela Boyd had a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Toledo held a 51-39 lead going into the fourth quarter, then held off a late Buffalo rally in the final 10 minutes. Boyd made 4 of 6 free throws in the last minute to squash any hopes for the Bulls (22-10).The Rockets held a 17-15 lead after one quarter of play. Santucci set the tone with a three-pointer early and an old-fashioned three-point play with a minute left in the opening period. Santucci then set up McIntyre for a layup with seven seconds left in the quarter to give Toledo a two-point margin.
Toledo pushed the lead to 21-15 early in the second quarter when Santucci hit a mid-range jumper. Buffalo countered with a 6-0 run to tie the game moments later, but Santucci struck again, hitting a 17-footer and a three-pointer in consecutive possessions to give UT a 30-24 margin, forcing a Buffalo timeout with 1:32 left in the half. Santucci made it 15 points in the opening half on a driving layup at the horn that sent Toledo into the locker room with a 34-27 edge.
The Rockets extended the lead to nine, 38-29, on a Santucci jumper early in the third quarter. Buffalo went on a 6-0 run to cut the lead to 38-35, but the Rockets countered with a 9-2 run capped by six straight points by sophomore guard Olivia Cunningham to give them a 47-35 margin with 4:06 to play in the period. Moments later, Cunningham made a pair of free throws to put Toledo up, 51-37. UT’s lead was trimmed to 51-39 at the end of three quarters.
Buffalo cut the lead to eight early in the fourth quarter, but once again Santucci answered the call, hitting a layup at the 7:53 mark to make the score 55-45. But Buffalo would not quit, as a three-pointer by Courtney Wilkins pulled the Bulls to within five, 57-52, with 4:58 left.
Senior forward Janice Monakana answered with a three-pointer from the corner, but Buffalo answered with layups by JoAnna Smith and Gabi Bade to make it 60-56 with 3:34 remaining, forcing a Toledo timeout. Bravo-Harriott came up big with an offensive rebound and a spinning layup as the shot clock wound down to make the score 62-56. Santucci added another bucket on a drive to push the lead to 64-56 with 2:39 left.
The Bulls trimmed the lead back to within six points, 66-60, on a drive by Cassie Oursler at the 1:26 mark. Boyd punched UT’s ticket to the MAC Championship Game by making 4-6 free throws in the final minute.