TOLEDO - The Youngstown State women's basketball team's best season in 15 years came to a close Saturday at the hands of a strong Toledo defense that lifted the Rockets to a 61-43 victory in the second round of the Women's National Invitational Tournament at Savage Hall.
The Penguins finish the season 23-10, their best record since 1997-98, and had a 13-win turnaround from last season. Toledo improved to 29-3 and will play either Illinois or Eastern Illinois in the Sweet 16 of the WNIT next week.
Toledo's defense, which ranked 10th in the country coming into Saturday's game, limited the number of quality looks for YSU. When the Penguins did get open shots, they just didn't fall. However, that same gritty effort that led to 23 wins and a renewed buzz surrounding the program was as present as ever.
"I thought our kids played hard, not just today but all season long," YSU coach Bob Boldon said. "We just couldn't make shots. We executed and got some good shots, and I think that's what is going to stick with our kids all summer. That's a lot easier to live with than not playing hard. I'm really proud of the effort that our young ladies gave. We missed shot after shot, but that didn't affect our defensive intensity. I think that shows a lot of maturity and growth."
Junior Liz Hornberger echoed Boldon's sentiments.
"I'm so proud of my teammates and so proud to be a part of this team," she said. "Today is bittersweet because we came such a long way this season, but it always hurts to lose."
The Rockets led by as many as 18 just 13 minutes into the game, but the Penguins kept battling and cut the margin to 10 with 13:43 remaining in the second half. Toledo, though, scored on offensive rebounds on its next two possessions and scored the next seven points overall. YSU never got closer than 13 the rest of the contest.
Monica Touvelle's lay up off a steal from Hornberger made the score 45-32 with 9:39 left, but Toledo scored the next eight points and held YSU without a field goal for almost 8 minutes.
Inma Zanoguera had 24 points and three steals that led to breakaway lay ups, and Naama Shafir added 14 points for Toledo. Zanoguera was 10-for-14 from the field, including 3-for-3 from 3-point range. YSU held her teammates to 10-for-46 shooting overall and 1-for-9 from the 3-point arc.
Senior forward Brandi Brown led YSU with 10 points before fouling out with 4:59 left in the final game of her remarkable career. She finished her career with 2,079 points and a school-record 1,239 rebounds and a list of accomplishments that cemented her as one of the top players in school history. Shar'Rae Davis and Heidi Schlegel had seven points apiece.
"She's the best basketball player that I've ever coached, and she's the best person that I've ever been around," Boldon said of Brown. "She's just a wonderful individual. Her stats will speak for her playing ability long after she graduates, but I hope everyone remembers what a great person she is. I'm very proud that I had a chance to coach such a wonderful young lady."
Toledo's defense was the story of the game throughout, and a 13-0 run over an eight-minute stretch in the first half helped the Rockets lead 30-15 at halftime.
The Penguins trailed just 10-5 following a Davis bucket at the 14:43 mark but did not score again until the freshman point guard hit a triple with 6:37 remaining. Toledo, meanwhile, made nine of its first 12 attempts and led 23-5 on Andola Dortch's basket with 7:47 left. YSU's defense held the Rockets to seven points the rest of the half, which helped the Penguins trim the deficit to 15 at halftime.
Hornberger followed Davis' 3-pointer with one of her own to cut the margin to 25-11 and force a Toledo timeout with 5:11 left. Zanoguera made two 3-pointers in just over a minute for the Rockets to push the lead back to 18, and YSU held a 4-1 advantage in the final three-and-a-half-minutes.
Of the Rockets' 30 first-half points, 18 came in the first eight minutes, and 12 came in just over three minutes from 15:43 to 12:23. Toledo forced 16 turnovers, which it turned into a 14-6 edge off miscues. The Rockets, though, committed 16 themselves. YSU was whistled for four offensive fouls in the opening period.
Toledo matched its largest lead on its second possession of the second half on a 3-pointer by Zanoguera, but YSU kept up and trailed 37-20 at the 15:42 mark. That's when the Penguins scored seven straight points to cut the margin to 10 with 13:43 left. Karen Flagg split a pair of free throws to start the run, and Brown and Touvelle hit back-to-back 3-pointers in a span of 30 seconds to make the score 37-27.
Shafir scored off an offensive rebound from Zanoguera on Toledo's next trip down the floor, and the pair flipped roles less than a minute later as Zanoguera converted a three-point play. Zanoguera then had a steal and lay-up with 11:32 left that made the score 44-27 in favor of Toledo.
Brown hit a 3-pointer for YSU with 10:56 left to make the score 44-30, and Touvelle's bucket from Hornberger still had the Penguins within 13 at 45-32 with 9:39 left. Toledo scored the next eight points as part of a 12-2 run to pull away.
YSU shot 25 percent for the game and was 7-for-25 from 3-point range. The Penguins had 12 steals and forced Toledo into 22 turnovers. The Rockets shot 40 percent and made 11 more field goals on eight more attempts. Toledo also had a 16-3 edge in second-chance points, all of which came in the second half.