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Toledo wins Georgia State's Holiday & Hoops Tournament by stepping up as a team

Even with star Yolanda Richardson leaving the game with an apparent head injury, the Toledo Rockets pulled together as a team and a 46-43 win over the hosting Georgia State Panthers to take the GSU Holiday & Hoops Tournament championship.

Inma Zanoguera helped the Toledo Rockets overcome the loss of star forward Yolanda Richardson in Sunday's game against the Georgia State Panthers.
Inma Zanoguera helped the Toledo Rockets overcome the loss of star forward Yolanda Richardson in Sunday's game against the Georgia State Panthers.
Photo by Rick Osentoski | USA Today Sports Images

Atlanta, GA -- In Toledo’s 46-43 victory over the host team in the Georgia State Holiday & Hoops Tournament, the Rockets used a collective effort to outlast the Panthers.

Early on, both teams struggled offensively as neither could establish any type of consistent rhythm; by the 7:19 mark, Georgia State and Toledo each had nearly 10 turnovers apiece.

Slowly, the Rockets started to take a semblance of control by dominating the paint with timely offensive rebounds. This helped Toledo get a 9-4 lead but then they hit a lull which allowed Georgia State multiple opportunities to get back into the game. And the Panthers took advantage of that reprieve as they began to play with more confidence -- early on, they just weren't acclimated to Toledo’s physical style.

Cody Paulk began to assert herself, the 6-foot-3 senior started to become more aggressive offensively and defensively. It was almost as if she was up to task of going against Toledo’s formidable superstar center, Yolanda Richardson.

“I thought she played a great game,” said Georgia State coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener. “We got to try to get her more shots, I wanted to try to get her the basketball little bit better, but I do think Toledo did a good job of limiting her touches.”

Paulk, who was a non-factor in Saturday’s contest, made her presence known in a very loud way. She was constantly a force in the paint; she got deep post position which allowed her to get multiple baskets at the rim. But Paulk’s offensive production was only part of Georgia State’s early success, as her defensive prowess became her hallmark -- she garnered four blocks in the first half alone.

“Cody is getting closer to having the school record in blocked shots,” said Georgia State coach Sharon Baldwin-Tener. “And the CAA record, I think maybe she beat it -- she’s really a force down there. I think she does a lot of things for our basketball team; I think it allows the guards to pressure like they do when she’s down there. Not only the six blocks (she had all game); I think she altered a lot of shots as well.”

Usually when a team is struggling, there is one go-to player that they can lean on to step up. What’s unique about Toledo is their team as a whole always steps up, not just one particular player. With Richardson out of the game with an apparent head injury from an elbow, a multitude of players immediately rose to the occasion.

“I think the thing that I’m really proud of is that we faced some obstacles today,” said Toledo coach Tricia Cullop. “Yolanda goes down and can’t play the rest of the game. And I thought to see some other players step up, (Brianna Jones) played great defense -- and we found a way to win. We found out that other players can step up.”

With Georgia State starting to enforce its will, the Panthers were able to build their lead to seven points. Immediately the Rockets responded with great play from Lecretia Smith; she took the onus of becoming Toledo’s low post presence offensively. Time after time Smith posted up and was able to seal off her defender for some opportune lay-ups.

“Lecretia stepped up and got some big baskets,” said Cullop.

And while Smith raised her intensity, so did some of her teammates, most notably Inma Zanoguera. Zanoguera, the 5’10” sophomore from Spain, really epitomized Toledo’s mantra of “next woman stepping up.” Not only did she hit some big shots in second half, she completely out-hustled and out-worked her opponents by grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds, nine of which were offensive.

“Well we needed to get rebounds from somebody and the way we were shooting, it was obvious that the ball wasn’t going in,” said a smiling Cullop. “She was the first one to get on the clue bus, (that) we needed to go get the boards, but she did a fantastic job. This is probably one of the more physical games we’ve played and I thought she did a nice job of really being strong.

“She’s a strong kid, going to the boards, fighting and getting us some other rebounds and some other possessions.”

The leading scorers for Toledo were Andola Dortch and Naama Shafir, who had, 11 and 10 points respectively. Georgia State was led by Kayla Nolan’s double-double, 13 points and 11 rebounds. The Rockets’ Zanoguera was named Tournament MVP and her teammate, Richardson was named to the All-Tournament team. Georgia State’s Paulk was named to the All-Tournament as well.