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Toledo ready to battle Bluejays in NCAA Tournament First-Round contest

Much has been said about the fact that The University of Toledo women’s basketball team is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 16 years. Head Coach Tricia Cullop pointed out that there is another streak the Rockets would like to break.

“It’s been 16 years since we made the NCAA Tournament,” said Cullop at yesterday’s pre-practice news conference, “but it’s been even longer (21 years) since we advanced to the second round.”

After meeting with the press, Cullop and the Rockets got their first look at Gill Coliseum, holding a 90-minute practice Thursday afternoon at Oregon State’s home arena in Corvallis in anticipation of its first-round NCAA Tournament game vs. Creighton on Friday.

The game will be broadcast on ESPN2 in the Toledo and Omaha markets (ESPN3 elsewhere) and will begin 30 minutes after the conclusion of the Oregon State-Long Beach State game. The OSU-LBSU contest is set for 2 p.m. Pacific Time (5 p.m. Eastern Time), giving the Toledo-Creighton game an approximate tip time of 4:30 p.m. Pacific Time (7:30 Eastern Time).

The No. 10 seed Rockets (25-8) earned an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament by defeating Northern Illinois, 82-71, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland Saturday, and winning their first MAC Championship Tournament title since 2001. No. 7 seed Creighton (23-7) was the regular-season Big East champion, but was knocked out of the conference tournament with a loss to Marquette in the semifinals.

The Rockets are basking in the glow of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001, but clearly they are not satisfied to simply make the tournament. They are looking to advance to the second round of the tournament, something they have done three times before, but not since 1996 when they defeated Ole Miss in Norfolk, Va.

“After we won the (MAC) tournament, we enjoyed the fact that we finally won after so many years,” said Cullop, who herself is making her first NCAA appearance in 17 years as a head coach. “After we watched the NCAA selection show, I wanted our players to soak that in because that’s a special moment that we’ll never forget. But at our last practice before we came out here (on Wednesday), I had our players look up at all the banners in Savage Arena. The one thing I wanted them to take special note of, yes, it’s been 16 years since we made the NCAA Tournament, but it’s been even longer since we advanced to the second round. I don’t want them to just be satisfied to be here. I want them to be hungry to give it their best shot.”

Toledo’s players are ready for the challenge.

“Everyone is excited for this opportunity,” said senior forward Janice Monakana. “We are appreciative to be here, and we plan to show our appreciation by playing hard. Our goal right now is to move into the second round and see what happens from there.”

Added sophomore guard Mikaela Boyd, “We’re watching a lot of film (of Creighton), trying to learn as much as we can. We’ve worked hard for this all season, and we don’t want to stop now. We want to take this as far as we can go.”

Cullop and Creighton Head Coach Jim Flanery are friends, dating back to the days when Cullop was the head coach at Evansville from 2000 to 2008. Evansville and Creighton were both members of the Missouri Valley Conference at the time. Creighton has since moved the Big East, and Cullop took over at Toledo in the 2008-09 season.

“I have the ultimate respect for Jim,” Cullop said. “He’s a class act and has built a great program at Creighton. He’s a coaching peer I have a lot of admiration for. It’s a little bittersweet. Had we not been paired against each other, we’d be cheering for each other.”

Toledo and Creighton had only one common opponent this season, Dayton, which is also an NCAA Tournament team. The Bluejays defeated the Flyers on a neutral floor, 56-53, while the Rockets won at Dayton, 76-72. Toledo’s other games against NCAA tourney teams were losses to UCLA, 75-73, and Notre Dame, 85-68. Toledo went 12-6 in MAC play, with all six losses coming to teams seeded ahead of them in the conference tournament. The Rockets ended their season on a high note, winning 11 of their 12 games, including four MAC tourney games.

“We’ve been tested a lot this season, and we’ve risen to the occasion every time,” Cullop said. “I don’t expect anything different tomorrow. I’m not going to guarantee that we’re going to win, but I guarantee we’re going to play hard and give it our best shot.”