The NIU women’s basketball team is pointed in the right direction despite a season-ending, hard-fought 72-62 loss to Toledo in the quarterfinals of the Mid-American Conference Tournament on Thursday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena.
NIU (14-17, 6-10 MAC) entered the game as the No. 7 seed and had already won two games in the tournament before No. 3 Toledo (21-8, 13-3 MAC) got into town. The Co-MAC West regular season champions earned a bye to the quarterfinals with a 13-3 record during the conference season.
The Huskies came in with three appearances in the MAC semifinals to face seven-time MAC Tournament champion Toledo, who hadn’t played a game in nearly a week, and got on top of the Rockets early before running out of gas at the end.
NIU opened up absolutely on fire as Courtney Shelton (Rockford, Ill./Hononegah) buried three straight threes amidst NIU’s 9-for-15 start from the field. The early offensive outburst gave NIU a 22-14 lead with 10:56 left in the first half, as NIU was attacking the paint and keeping good rhythm on both ends.
The Huskies led by as much as 10 in the first half on five different occasions and seemingly had Toledo on the ropes.
Then, a slight loss in focus led to a turnover and UT’s Andola Dortch connected on a three to cut NIU’s lead to 34-29 with 5:37 left in the half. During NIU’s next possession, a five-second violation gave the ball back to the Rockets and they would run off five straight points to tie the game at 34.
Amanda Corral (Hobart, Ind./Hobart) answered with a fade-away jumper and three-point play to help the Huskies take a slim 40-38 lead at the half, but the slight loss in focus got Toledo and its faithful up and rolling, which led to a long second half for NIU.
In the second half, the Huskies took a 44-40 lead after a Shelton jumper with 18:08 to go. However, NIU would not score again until Natecia Augusta (Peoria, Ill./Limestone) hit two free throws with 6:45 left.
“They definitely turned up the defense and got after us in the half court in the second half,” said NIU head coach Kathi Bennett. “They crashed the offensive glass and that really hurt us down the stretch. We got away from getting inside. We had our chances down the stretch, though.”
In the mean time, Toledo turned the tables and was the aggressor in the second half. The Rockets used pressure defense to shutdown the Huskie shooters and Dortch took over on offense. The MAC Defensive Player of the Year and Second Team All-MAC selection scored 14 of her 24 points and handed out four of her eight assists in the second half.
“She’s a good one,” Bennett said of Dortch. “Not only does she defend for 40 minutes, she scores. She does it all. In my opinion, she’s a First Team All-MAC player.”
Dortch’s efforts led Toledo to a 54-46 lead after Augusta’s free throws. The Huskies fought hard down the stretch but could only get as close as seven points with 4:35 to go.
Kim Davis (Evanston, Ill./Evanston) led NIU with 14 points. Two other Huskies reached double figures as Corral had 13 and Shelton had 11.
After missing out on the tournament last season in Bennett’s first campaign, the future is looking bright for the program after the completion of Year Two under the 300-win coach. With two wins in the MAC Tournament for the first time since 2007, the Huskies made a splash in the postseason with a team full of underclassmen that can build on the experience.
The Huskies will return 11 players for the 2012-13 campaign, including a healthy Claire Jakubicek (Cary, Ill./Cary-Grove), who was the MAC Freshman of the Year. NIU will also get sophomore guard Danny Pulliam (Indianapolis, Ind./Pike) back in addition to getting the services of 6’0″ sophomore forward Jada Buggs (Elkhart, Ind./Memorial) after sitting out the season while transferring from Wisconsin.
Overall, the 2012-13 Huskies will return nearly 70 percent of their points and 75 percent of their rebounds, which is the opposite of what NIU had returning for the 2011-12 season.
“We have players that want to be in the gym and want to get better,” said Bennett. “They are excited for what can happen here in the future. They got a taste of it here. Toledo won the NIT; they know how to win. That’s what we want to get to and strive for.”
NIU loses key contributors Davis and Shelton due to graduation. The senior duo did a lot to lay the foundation for future success as they guided a young team to Cleveland. Over the last 10 years of NIU women’s basketball, Davis is one of six players to score 400 points, shoot 40 percent, and grab 300 rebounds. Shelton is one of four to score 600 points, tally 200 assists, and make 100 three-pointers.
“We are definitely going to miss Kim and Courtney – great energy,” Bennett said. “Courtney’s leadership is unbelievable. She plays hard and smart every single game. It was really only Kim’s second year of playing time and she improved tremendously from her start to finish. She really got the best out of her two years. You want to leave a program better than it was when you got there and I can say for sure these two did that.”
For more information on NIU women’s basketball and Huskie athletics, visit www.niuhuskies.com.