CLEVELAND, Ohio - Defense wins championships and that was no more evident Friday as No. 4 Central Michigan advanced to the Mid-American Conference championship game by defeating No. 1 Toledo at Quicken Loans Arena, 66-61.
Tickets for Saturday's championship game are available inside the arena turnstiles at the CMU table in the MAC Winners Circle (located directly in front of the CAVS team store.)
The Chippewas (20-11) held a one-point lead, 62-61, with 34 seconds to play when senior Brandie Baker was called for an offensive foul during her attempt to receive the inbound pass.
After a CMU timeout, Baker blocked the attempt of Inma Zanoguera under the basket resulting in a jump ball and Toledo possession with 32 seconds. The Rockets (27-3) had another chance, but senior Jessica Schroll's pressure defense forced a fadeaway attempt from Naama Shafir that clanged off the back of the rim and was pulled down by junior Taylor Johnson.
Johnson calmly knocked down both free throws to put the Maroon and Gold up three, 64-61, with 16.2 seconds. Then Schroll came up huge on defense again blocking a three attempt by Shafir and knocking down a pair of free throws to secure the five-point win.
The defense was never more important then when sophomore Crystal Bradford and Johnson, who combined for six steals and four blocks, both went to the bench with four fouls and 14:10 left on the clock.
The Chippewas held a 47-38 advantage at that point and were held without a field goal for a stretch of 7:34, but the defense was able to prevent the Rockets from ever taking the lead.
Toledo pulled within two, 49-47, on a free throw by Shafir with 8:55 to play before Bradford re-entered and finally broke the scoreless streak with a post move over Smith. Toledo hung around and was within four, 57-53, after layup by Yolanda Richardson, but Bradford hit a stepback three with Smith's hand in her face to go back up seven, 60-53, with 3:06 to play.
The Chippewas had a chance to go up nine after a defensive stop, but Toledo reeled off six-straight points to pull within one, 60-59. Again it was Bradford who came down with an offensive rebound and putback to keep the lead in CMU's favor prior to the craziness of the final 34 seconds.
While the defense secured the win, it was the play of the Chippewas' offense that put the game in their favor early on and gave them a lead to preserve. CMU knocked down four-straight treys to open the game and take a 12-4 lead, and pushed it to double digits, 20-10, after yet another three from Niki DiGuilio in transition.
Despite every effort by the Rockets to cut into that deficit, the Chippewas pushed through and even built their lead to as many as 14 points on a layup by sophomore Jas'Mine Bracey, 31-17. Bracey finished the contest a perfect 5-for-5 with 10 points and five rebounds in 19 huge minutes off the bench.
Schroll and Johnson both finished in double digits for the Chippewas as well, with 15 and 10.
Bradford finished with three steals and three blocks to go with her 20 points in just 26 minutes due to the foul trouble.
CMU will play the winner the No. 2 Ball State versus No. 3 Akron matchup tomorrow afternoon at 1 p.m. The game will be broadcast live on Comcast Michigan, SportsTime Ohio and ESPN3.