The 12-1 Toledo Rockets – on the fringe of the women’s college basketball rankings – face were the marquee team in this weekend’s Georgia State University Holiday & Hoops tournament. They overcame a solid Charlotte team and host Georgia State to finish non-conference play with the tournament’s championship.
Atlanta, GA — In a battle between two of the premier mid-major programs, neither team disappointed as this game lived up to its billing with neither giving an inch. But Toledo was able to pull away in the second half — behind the strong performance of Yolanda Richardson en route to a 76-66 victory.
“We had several players that I think (in) the first half that were a little frustrated because their shots weren’t falling,” said Toledo coach Tricia Cullop. “It was a physical game and we had to make some adjustments. But I think the biggest thing at halftime was getting them to settle down and playing the way we’re capable of.”
From the opening tip, it was obvious that Charlotte was looking to take advantage of their size in the post: Amanda Dowe (6’4”) and Jennifer Hailey (6’3”). Hailey led the charge with her physical presence as she scored four quick points and captured 2 rebounds. That helped the 49ers as they controlled the boards early on and held a 7-3 advantage by the first media timeout.
But the game of basketball is a game of adjustments and momentum. After the first media timeout, Toledo coach Tricia Cullop inspired her team to more aggressively pursue rebounds and play with more physicality — and that’s exactly what the Rockets did. Before one could blink an eye, Toledo had an 11-9 rebounding advantage and taken a five point lead: 20-15.
Not to be outdone, the 49ers countered with their own run to regain control of the game. And by halftime, Charlotte was up 30-28 while holding the Rockets to 37% from the field and 0-8 on their three-pointers.
Whatever was said by the coaches at halftime, it seemed to resonate with their respective teams because the intensity and physicality went up a few notches. But early on in the second half, there were two players that made it a point of raising their games to another level: Haley from Charlotte and Richardson from Toledo.
Back and forth they went, almost like two heavyweights in a boxing match as neither would succumb to the other. When one made a play, immediately afterwards the other would respond — it was quite a sight to see. But as with any mono y mono encounter, one person seizes control and takes over.
And that person was Toledo’s anchor in the middle.
Richardson, the 6-foot-2 senior, played with a ferocity that had to have her coach smiling. She constantly demanded the ball in the post irregardless of the taller post player that was guarding her. She not only didn’t show any fear, she didn’t even hesitate as she continued to score over her left shoulder and her right shoulder — it just didn’t matter. Charlotte didn’t have an answer for the determination and will of Richardson.
“Yolanda enjoys playing against taller post players,” said Cullop. “She thrives in those kinds of situations and she looks forward to those types of match-ups. We saw some of her best tonight but I think it’s because she does (enjoy those match-ups). Too many times she’s pitted against a 6’0” or 6’1” kid, it was kind of fun for her tonight to go against somebody her own height.
“Sometimes when you’re the bigger kid on the floor, you’re getting fouls called on you constantly. And tonight it’s kind of fun for her to be able to play physical, the way she knows she likes to.”
Richardson’s spirited play ignited the Rockets and it spread to the rest of her teammates; every time Charlotte seemed to get a little energy to make a run, somebody from Toledo would step up. Late in the second half with only a few minutes left, the 49ers made one last push only for it to be negated by three-pointers from Inma Zanoguera and Kyle Baumgartner.
Those clutch responses were just a microcosm of how Toledo reacted to every challenge throughout the game — especially how Richardson responded. And even the Toledo faithful took notice of their team’s resolve and grit, prompting them in the stands to chant, “TOL…EDO, TOL…EDO.”
“We have a very unselfish team,” said Cullop. “And the thing I’ve enjoyed about coaching them all year long is when someone is having an off night, somebody else steps up. And I thought Yolanda really took us on her back tonight.”
Richardson led Toledo with 24 points and 8 rebounds; Zanoguera and Naama Shafir had 10 points apiece. Charlotte was led by Hailey’s 26 points and 9 rebounds while Jai Forney and Hillary Sigmon, had 14 points and 12 points, respectively.