Toledo returns to NCAA Tournament with win over Bowling Green for MAC women’s basketball championship

CLEVELAND, Ohio — For the ninth time in program history and first since 2017, the Toledo women’s basketball team cut down the nets as Mid-American Conference tournament champions on Saturday. The top-seeded Rockets also earned earned an automatic birth in the NCAA Tournament with their 73-58 victory over Bowling Green at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.

Dating back to a cold Jan. 18 night in the middle of the week at Bowling Green, a fire was started in the hearts of everyone in the Toledo locker room after an 88-76 loss to the Falcons. The loss prompted a players-only meeting led by the seniors that was the start of something bigger than the players in attendance and ended with a MAC title.

Ripping off 16 straight wins, including the title game, the Rockets (28-4) overcame a hurdle they set one year after falling short of the title game as the No. 1 seed in 2022.

“When your players have ownership, it’s more than I can ever say,” Toledo head coach Tricia Cullop said. “The biggest thing was no more excuses. If we really want to do what we say we’re going to do, then no more excuses and you’ve got to show up everyday and do it and their big message was we’re going to support you, but we’ve all got to be on this page.”

Staying loose before the game and finding words of encouragement from Cleveland State head coach Chris Kielsmeier after the Vikings’ conference championship, the Rockets were relaxed and came out swinging against the Falcons (27-6) from the very beginning.

“The best advice we got, the other day we practiced at Cleveland State and Chris is a good friend of mine and I had him come over and talk to our team because they had an overtime win in their tournament to get to the finals as well,” said Cullop, the MAC Coach of the Year. “He said to keep it loose, smile a lot, have fun, enjoy the ride, because if you feel the pressure, you won’t get there. He said he made a point of laughing and smiling and shaking off the stress and that’s what we made a point of doing today.

“Shoot, we played music and let the kids dance before they came out on the court.”

As a credit to Kielsmeier’s words and finding a groove before getting on the court, the Rockets came out and delivered a haymaker before the Falcons knew what was coming. In front of a large crowd that made the trip from Toledo, the Rockets’ fans outnumbered the Falcons’ by a wide margin, despite the rivalry and the two squads splitting the season series.

The Rockets’ defense set the tone early and kept the Falcons off the scoreboard for just under four minutes. In that time, the Rockets took a 12-0 lead by shooting 5 of 5 from the floor that put more urgency on the Falcons’ offense.

“We’ve been beat by BG early on in the season and I think beating them again everyone was like alright, it’s one and one, there’s still a lot up in the air,” Cook said. “I think we all wanted to come out and punch them in the throat and show them hands down that we were the best team and I think that’s something we came out and proved.”

Eventually the hot-shooting Rockets cooled off and opened the door for the Falcons in the second half. That’s when senior Allison Day started to heat up for the Falcons with nine quick points before the half, helping to close the gap to 33-26.

Another hurdle to jump through at the half for the Falcons was containing sophomore Jessica Cook. Playing a big role in the scoring advantage on 5 of 5 shooting and 10 points, it was Cook’s five boards at the break that made her a thorn in the Falcons’ side.

On a team with a lot of individual awards, it was Cook and her all-tournament performance of 16 points on 8 of 11 shooting and seven rebounds that meant a lot to the Rockets’ winning effort.

It was a night destined for the Rockets to stand at center court under a confetti shower as the Falcons kept coming with a couple of shots, but the Rockets kept hitting difficult shots to put the game away. MAC Player of the Year Quinesha Lockett had another strong performance with a team-high 17 points and knew the importance of the matchup before the clock started.

“I feel like it was especially important today just to start off with a punch instead of getting punched because the last couple of games we had to fight back and feel like that takes a lot more energy,” Lockett said. “I just feel like we did such a good job today.”

For a coach that wanted the win more for her players than herself, Cullop said she fought off a restless night worrying about little things and looking into ranking metrics for possible outcomes. In a conference that gets overlooked with both the Rockets and the Falcons clearing 27 wins, Cullop believes the MAC deserves to have at least two teams represented in the NCAA Tournament.

“Someone posted yesterday that a year or two ago a mid-major won 30 games and still didn’t get in and then I thought about, gosh I was feeling bad about 27,” Cullop said. “When you’ve got great mid-majors, I wish we had different metrics to get us there because a Bowling Green, a Ball State, you put them in the tournament I bet they win a game.”

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