CLEVELAND, Ohio— The Toledo Rockets are advancing to the MAC Tournament finals after defeating the Buffalo Bulls 72-65 in a knock-down, drag-out battle that was nearly statistically even.
Just a cursory glance at the box score, and it’s clear that it is pretty difficult to discern which team had an edge for most of the afternoon. The Rockets shot 43 percent from the field, while the Bulls shot 42 percent. The Rockets grabbed 39 rebounds compared the Buffalo’s 36. Toledo made four threes compared to Buffalo’s five. And perhaps most astoundingly, both teams scored 38 points in the second half.
In a game where the stats were nearly identical, Mariella Santucci was the deciding factor. Santucci finished the afternoon with a game-high 21 points, 15 of which came in the first half, and four assists. Santucci also had the difficult task of guarding Buffalo’s standout guard JoAnna Smith for a majority of the game. Smith finished with a team-high 17 points for the Bulls.
“I tried to guard her in a way that she had to make difficult shots and just on the screen, switch higher, try to don't let her touch the ball,” Santucci said.
While Smith ended up in double-digits, Santucci’s defense was the deciding factor that prevented her from ever getting a sustained offensive attack started for the Bulls. Combine that with Toledo’s three-point defense, which is one of the toughest in the nation, and the Bulls had a hard time overcoming their second quarter deficit.
Tonight’s performance that helped advance her team to the conference tournament finals is incredibly important for Santucci, who has struggled with a foot injury throughout the season. Teammate Jay-Ann Bravo-Harriott, who finished with 12 points, credited Santucci with all of the mental and physical preparation she’s put in to the last few weeks heading into post-season play.
“She struggled a bit, but we believed in her, we believed in the work she put in,” Bravo-Harriott said. “Especially in practice, we tried to instill more confidence in her, and I saw these last couple weeks or month or so, she started to believe in herself and take the shots that she would have turned down earlier.”
Early on, Santucci was critical in counteracting the Bull’s zone defense. Her ability to continually drive into the lane allowed Toledo to gain a seven-point lead in the second quarter. For Buffalo head coach Felisha Legette-Jack, that second quarter span where Toledo gained a slight edge was ultimately what decided the game.
“We didn't have any room to doubt. [Toledo] was too good to have that second to doubt, and I think that's something that we're going to have to look at and share with them,” Legette-Jack said.
“At this point in time, we panicked, we became individuals, and we didn't believe. And then we got you backed up to that timeout but it was already a seven-point lead, and once you give a team like that a seven-point lead, you've got to really be a perfect team, and I don't think any team's perfect. So adversity hits, you've got to keep the faith, you've got to keep going down, but you've got to keep the faith up.”
Ultimately that stretch in the second quarter led by Santucci propelled the Rockets to the conference finals. They will face the Northern Illinois University Huskies tomorrow morning in the MAC Tournament Finals at 11.