Toledo is the MAC tournament champion, beating Northern Illinois 82-71 Saturday with a strong fourth quarter.
In some ways, the Rockets are the team a Kent State fan wanted to win. Toledo knocked Kent State out of the tournament 68-65 in Wednesday’s quarterfinals in a game that was much closer than the championship and closer than Toledo’s semifinal win over Ball State.
So Kent can say it was beaten by the league’s best team.
I was rooting for Northern. In many ways, the Huskies are like Kent State. They were last in the MAC West last season and picked fifth in the division this year. Their turnaround in the conference was second only to the Flashes.
Like Kent, NIU had a great senior in Ally Lehman, who was in the top three on the MAC in scoring, rebounding and assists as a 5-10 guard. Her KSU counterpart, of course, was Larissa Lurken, who led the league in scoring.
Like Lurken, Lehman is an extraordinary student and person. She’s a member of ROTC (something I’ve never heard of in a Division I athlete) and has been commissioned in the Army after she graduates in May. She shaved her head in support of teammate Paulina Castro, who was diagnosed with lymphoma later in 2016. That’s a gutsy thing for a college woman to do.
There was much debate between Kent State and NIU fans on who deserved to be MAC player of the year. (Lurken won.)
Toledo beat Northern in a similar fashion to the way it beat Kent State. The Rockets broke open a tight game two minutes to go in the fourth quarter and played terrific defense until the end of the game. Kent State led Toledo by seven at about the same point, lost the lead and battled until the Flashes missed a three-point shot with one second to go.
Any team that holds NIU to 71 points is likely to win. The Huskies’ style is to win by outscoring people; they were fourth in the nation in scoring offense but last in the MAC in scoring defense.
Toledo’s Michaela Boyd, a 5-7 guard, let the Rockets with 27 points, 14 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and blocked shot. Reserve Olivia Cunningham had 20. Toledo center Kaayla McIntyre had 8 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocked shots. Lehman had 22 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists for Northern.
Toledo goes into the NCAA tournament with a 24-8 record and its first MAC tournament championship since 2001. NIU is 21-11.
Like Kent State, Northern is likely to get a bid to the WNIT. Northern finished fourth in the conference, Kent State third. Last season five MAC teams made the WNIT; the league was better this season. Six MAC teams — including Northern and Kent — had RPIs in the top 100. Best was regular-season champion Central Michigan at 44; Toledo was 45.
As regular season champion, Central is guaranteed a spot in the WNIT. Other MAC teams likely to get bids are Ohio (22-9. RIO 73) Buffalo (22-10, RPI 96) and Ball State (22-10, RPI 122). Northern’s RPI is 75. (All my RPI numbers come from WarrenNolan.com. RPI is figured from a team’s record, its opponents’ records, and its opponents’ opponents’ record. Road wins and home losses are weighted 1.6. Home wins and road losses 1.4.)
Kent State is 19-12 with an RPI of 97. That’s 221 places higher than last season, the biggest improvement in Division I.
Does the MAC have any chance of a second NCAA bid? Not likely. The league hasn’t had two teams in the tournament since second-place Kent State and champion Toledo in 1996. That was the year the Flashes, led by Amy Sherry, won their only NCAA game in history, a 72-68 win over Texas A&M.
At 45, Central’s RPI is good. But RPI doesn’t mean as much as at once did. Perhaps more important today is “quality wins.” Central is 1-3 against teams in the top 50 RPI, and 6-3 against teams ranked 50-100. (All of those wins were against MAC teams.) Most Power 5 teams that finished in the first division of their conferences will have more wins over good teams.
We find out Monday, when the seedings for the NCAA tournament is announced. (It used to be on Sunday, but it’s been moved to get separately publicity from the men, who announce their field Sunday.)
WNIT bids will be announced shortly after the NCAA field is set. Up until the semifinals, games are played at campus sites. It’s not impossible Kent State would host a game. One factor in deciding is whether a school is willing to cover the expenses. I assume other things like fan base and record have something to do with it, too.
But I’m pretty sure that the Kent State women’s season isn’t quite over yet.
Here’s Toledo-NIU story from MAC website, which includes links to box score, quotes from both team, brackets and almost everything else you can imagine.