Despite a 20-point first-half lead, Ball State stormed back in the second to nearly steal a win away from a Toledo Rockets team looking to take the lead in the MAC West Division standings.
Toledo opened up their contest against Ball State with an 11-0 run and looked to be on pace to have the MAC West’s best record wrapped up by halftime. Yolanda Richardson was cleaning up on the glass and scoring at will and the normally sharp shooting Cardinals couldn’t buy a bucket. Unfortunately for the Rockets, and their large contingent of fans who made the trip to Indiana, the blowout wasn’t meant to be. Ball State’s coaching staff remembered all you need to turn a hot Toledo Rockets team into a cold shooting horror show is a 2-3 zone defense.
Ball State stormed back in the second half with a strong zone defense and some excellent three point shooting. The Cardinals were aided by Toledo’s penchant for committing unnecessary fouls on the defensive end and bad interior passes that lead to turnovers on the offensive side of the ball. The 20 point lead in the first half vanished and Toledo had to hold on with both hands for a 67 to 64 victory over the Cardinals.
With their normally stout defense slipping, the Rockets backcourt of Andola Dortch and Naama Shafir both came through with outstanding games to help offset the Ball State offensive outburst in the second half. Shafir led all scorers with 19 points and Dortch dominated from the charity stripe finishing 10 of 15 from the line for a total of 13 points.
If it wasn’t for Toledo’s dominance on the boards and from, of all places, the free throw line this could have gone down as one of the worst Rocket losses in recent memory. The Rockets outrebounded the Cardinals 47 to 37 and were especially strong in the first half when Ball State was struggling from the floor and providing ample opportunities for caroms. Toledo shot twice as many foul shots as Ball State (10-16 for Ball State, 22-31 for Toledo), including several clutch successful attempts in the waning moments of the game, to help seal the victory.
An area for concern after this game has to be the Toledo guards insistence on pushing their luck defensively and drawing needless fouls. Janelle Reed-Lewis filled in admirably as Inma Zanoguera, Shafir and Dortch all struggled with foul trouble over the course of the game. Zanoguera, in particular, only managed to play 20 minutes as she was saddled with foul trouble from the opening tip. She finished with 10 points and 3 rebounds before fouling out midway through the second half.
With the win Toledo brings their conference record to 9-1 and continues the winning streak they started after losing their MAC opener at home to Central Michigan. After next Saturday’s home game against Kent State, the Rockets finish their season with five straight games against their fellow teams from the West. The two biggest of those games being an away tilt at Central Michigan and the final home game of the year against Ball State.
So with this win is Toledo the best team in the MAC? Even with a 21-2 mark, the best record after 23 games in school history, it’s still too early to tell. The Central Michigan loss and this narrow victory over Ball State are enough to draw concern about this team’s chances when it comes to MAC Tournament time in March. Their outrageous record has been bolstered by some, to put it politely, lackluster non-conference competition and their struggles against the top teams in their division is alarming for any pessimistic Toledo fans out there.