Toledo to enter NCAA Tournament as #10 seed, Rockets take on #7 Creighton

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(TOLEDO) - UPDATE: The University of Toledo Rockets will enter the NCAA tournament as a #10 seed and will take on #7 seed Creighton. The game will be played on Friday, march 17 in Corvallis, OR.

The pairings were released Monday at 7:00pm (TV, ESPN). The Rockets gathered at Savage Arena to watch the show. 13abc was live at the the event.


Mikaela Boyd scored a career-high 27 points and grabbed 14 rebounds, and No. 6 seed Toledo beat fourth-seeded Northern Illinois 82-71 on Saturday in the finals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament for the Rockets' first trip the NCAA Tournament since 2001.

Olivia Cunningham added 20 points for Toledo (25-8), who took down defending MAC Tournament champion Buffalo in the semifinals. Mariella Santucci had 13 points, five rebounds and four assists.

Cunningham cut backdoor and made a layup with 4:17 left to extend Toledo's lead to 66-56. Ally Lehman kept NIU close by scoring on three straight possessions to make it 70-62 but the Huskies couldn't get stops at the other end.

Boyd made a steal in the backcourt, was fouled and hit two free throws with 1:48 to go for a 12-point lead.

Lehman led Northern Illinois (21-11) with 22 points, six rebounds and six assists.

COACH CULLOP: Well, first of all, I want to just say how impressed I was all season long with Northern Illinois. Ally Lehman is the epitome of someone that just gives everything, and is a great kid in addition to being a great player.

Even though I coached against her, I've admired her from afar for a long time, just because she is a great representative of our league.

I really was just so impressed with her team all season long. This was a hard-fought battle. We were very happy and pleased with the win, but I also just want to compliment them on what I great season they had.

I think today, the beginning of the game, you could tell by the two back-to-back air balls that were shot, everybody's legs were shot, and it really was a battle of wills.

What I was proud of was our defense. To hold a team the first have to 30 points that can score 100, we had to play great defense because they have great 3-pointer shooters. We got in some foul trouble trying to guard their drivers, and even in the middle of the third quarter began to wonder what we were going to do with some of our foul trouble.

But this team never stopped believing. They're such an unselfish, special group. It's been a long time since I've coached a group that had this strong a team chemistry, and I couldn't be more happy that they -- they're so deserving of this because of how hard they've worked, how unselfish they've been, doesn't matter who was the leading scorer. We didn't even have a MAC Player of the Week all season long, not once, but we came together. And I think that's what's fun about this team. We don't care. All we care about is that we won a championship and we get to go play in this tournament that we've been wanting to play in for a long time, and that our fan base deserves because they've been so loyal to us for so long.

Q. Ladies, congrats on the win, first of all. Heading into the final quarter you guys were down by 1 point. Can you talk a little bit about what was going through your minds, and what you guys talked about in the huddle and needing to accomplish in the fourth quarter?

JANICE MONAKANA: I think the main thing for us is just remaining calm, and we just focused on our defense. Like all year long, we've said our defense fuels our offense, so getting stops and scoring was kind of what we focused on. And every time we got a stop, I think that that kind of fueled our offense and we started to score towards the end.

I think that we did a good job, the bench did a good job, Olivia came in and gave us good minutes. Mariella does a really good job being what we call slippery, I don't know what the term is for that, but she just has great vision and sees a lot of things that a lot of point guards don't see. I think my main focus towards the end was our defense getting stops.

MIKAELA BOYD: One thing Coach said was we knew the team was going to make runs, and we knew we needed to be able to match those runs and get stops. I think that in the fourth quarter that's when we really, really turned it on, and decided to lock down and -- lock them down on defense, and finally we turned the game around.

OLIVIA CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I agree with both of them. In the huddle we just try to keep each other encouraged. We have plenty of time, plenty of the game left, so we was just trying to pump each other up, and not get down, and focus on the task at hand.

Like Janice said, we were really focused on trying to get stops. Like defense wins championships, so that's really what we were focusing on.

Q. For all you guys, can you describe the emotions afterwards, you can see a lot of it on your faces and what does this mean for the program?

MIKAELA BOYD: Well, I think personally I'm still in shock. I have never smiled this hard in my life. It feels really great. We have such an amazing fan base, and to be able to bring a championship back to Toledo is in describable.

OLIVIA CUNNINGHAM: I was in tears of joy. Pretty much as soon as the buzzer went off, I couldn't hold the tears anymore. I'm just really happy for us, we worked really hard all season to get to this moment. To take it feels really well. Like Boyd said, to give back to our fans, they are wonderful. Feels great. Doing it for our seniors, going to miss you, Janice and Sophie. We had to send them out with a bang.

JANICE MONAKANA: Just to echo what they've said, we've had so much support from our administration, to our fan base, everyone on campus, teachers support us. And it's just like amazing to kind of show them kind of what we were doing, and the hard work has paid off for us, and I think bringing this home is just like indescribable, like Boyd said. I haven't digested it yet.

Q. First of all, congratulations on the victory. What changed for the team going into the fourth quarter that allowed you guys to pull away with such a big lead?

JANICE MONAKANA: I just think that we're unique in the terms of the fact that we have a very deep bench compared to a lot of teams in the MAC, so a lot of people play six or seven players where we can play at least 10 to 12. That's just a difference with our team is that we have fresh legs, and I think that we kind of wore them out running our plays, and that's kind of where we kick in, towards the end is where we have the fresh legs because people are being subbed, and that's kind of where we get teams.

OLIVIA CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, I agree with Janice about the depth of our team. I think towards the end we just focused on getting stops. Every possession we were focused on getting the stop. Those stops back-to-back and those free throws and buckets that we hit really helped us towards the end.

MIKAELA BOYD: I believe that we are a good team -- we are a team who keeps our composure. We've been in a lot of situations this season where fourth quarters have determined the game. So composure was one thing, and we knew that if we just locked in and got our defense together, we would be fine.

Q. It's been kind of an up-and-down journey this season for you guys. Taking it back to the beginning of the year, did you know this team had a chance to do something special?

JANICE MONAKANA: I've always believed, my four years here, this is probably like the first year, I've kind of felt confident about -- like not that I didn't feel confident, but I kind of knew that we were different because in the past, teams have kind of been like there were three of us that actually had to have a good game for us to win. Whereas this team, it's like it could be anyone's night on any given day, because you have to scout everyone, because you just never know with our team.

So from the beginning, I've always said and I've said it to everyone on our team that I just knew that we can do something big. At the start of the year, we were focusing on the little things that would help us win a MAC championship, and we did those things.

Once we lost a little bit of focus, we refocused as a group. And I think we've just done a great job despite the obstacles that were thrown at us this year, we've still bounced back and it turned out to be a good season for us.

Q. Coach, congrats again on the win. Can you talk a little bit about to have a sophomore like Mikaela, who can score in crunch time, who rebounds like she does, just how unique it is to have an underclassman who is able to perform like that on the biggest state in the conference, and what she's going to mean for your team heading now into the NCAA tournament?

COACH CULLOP: Today she got hit in the nose pretty hard at one point in the time, and her nose started bleeding and during this little bit of a 30-second timeout, we were able to get the bleeding stopped, and I said to her do you need a sub, and she said no, and immediately goes down and scores. The kid's just tough. She's the epitome of toughness. She's also the most unselfish kid I've ever coached. And humble. She works hard, and her teammates want to match her intensity. They want to match her aggressiveness because she gives everything that she has every time she's on the floor. She's come so close to a triple-double more than once this season. She's had a double-double multiple times. It's rare to have a point guard who leads you in rebounding. She's our whatever-it-takes player. Whatever we need her to do she will do without complaint. She could be dragging up and down the floor, but she will still gives us everything she has, and she is a big reason why we won today. We were in foul trouble and she had to play a lot more minutes than I anticipated. I wanted to try to get her in and out because I knew she was tired, but she sucked it up and did whatever her team needed.

Q. Coach, now that it's in the books and in the rearview mirror, did this game break the way you thought it would? And if it didn't, was it a surprise to you? And how did your team factor into that, if in fact it didn't break that way?

COACH CULLOP: I was hoping at some point that we could wear them down. Where it became a little tricky was in the middle of the third quarter, we were in serious foul trouble with some key players. Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott sat on the bench a lot more today than I anticipated. Janice Monakana sat on the bench for a while in foul trouble, and we had to rely on other players, but that's what's been so great about this team. When someone can't do something, the next girl steps up. That's why I think, because they care so much about each other, when they sub in, they don't want to let the other kid down. They've been like that all season long.

It's fun to coach a team and be in a locker room with a bunch of unselfish people who just want to win. They don't really care about accolades, they just want to win and it's refreshing.

Q. The players said you guys have tremendous fan support. Like they said, the financial, institutional support is great. It's hard to ask this because nothing is -- you have to earn everything, but if anybody deserves this, does it feel like you guys deserve this for this program, this university, they deserve this chance?

COACH CULLOP: I don't know if anybody's ever wanted it as bad as we've wanted it for so many years, there's been a yearning. When I took the job a while back, nine years ago, we came very close, we were in the final championship game and didn't get a chance to pull it off, and we've had some teams that won the regular season and we were upset by two points or three points in a game that was just heartbreaking. One of those teams went on to win the NIT championship, and they were a team that was very similar to this one in makeup, just cared a lot about each other. When you find that special kind of makeup, you can do great things when people don't care who gets the credit.

But I will say that we have some of the best support from the top down at the University of Toledo that you'll find for women's basketball in the country, from our president to our athletic director to everyone on our campus, and our fan base. We have women's basketball season ticket holders that have been in our stands for 20 years. It's rare.

And to have the home court advantage that we had, we've been top 30 in the country in attendance for the last five years in a row. We've owned the MAC attendance record for I think 26 straight years. That's special, and it's fun to work in an environment where people care.

Q. Just that one moment when you were waving the net around, taking the selfie on top of the ladder, with everyone screaming. What's that like?

COACH CULLOP: Well, it's still sinking in. I know when I was doing the postgame interview, when he said how does it feel to be going to the NCAA Tournament, I was still kind of reeling from, just, we won, and trying to shift gears because you worried for so long that they could come back because they could shoot the 3 so well.

But this means an awful lot to everybody in our program, everybody in our university, our fan base. I don't know if words can describe how this feels, but I'm just extremely proud of everybody involved in our program because they've worked really hard to make this happen.

Q. This season as a whole, just a lot of ups and downs, battled some health issues. Was there ever really any doubt in your mind that this team was capable of doing this?

COACH CULLOP: Well, one thing that I'll say, the West Division was just like going through the gauntlet this year, and the new way that the MAC structured the schedule in that your crossover games, they made it a little tougher. We had to play Ohio and Buffalo twice in addition to playing the West twice. So you look at all those teams that we had to face, it prepared us for this tournament because we didn't have an easy night. And then even to finish the season, that Wednesday night we played at 9:00 p.m. at Northern Illinois, our time, and then that Saturday at Ball State, and then Monday against Akron, and it's all a blur after that.