David Briggs: Something special is happening at Savage Arena this winter

·5 min read

Jan. 23—Two years after the founding of the Toledo women's basketball program, Savage Arena opened in December, 1976.

From that very first night, when the UT men beat reigning champion Indiana to snap the Hoosiers' 33-game winning streak, the millions of Rockets hoops fans who've poured through the turnstiles have witnessed no shortage of memorable teams and seasons and roaring nights.

They have seen a lot.

But never have they seen anything like the story being co-authored here this winter.

In light of the Rockets women rolling to a 75-66 win over Buffalo on Saturday — their loudest statement yet in this unexpected delight of a season — it isn't just something special that's happening at the old gym on Douglas Road.

It's something without precedent.

With the UT women improving to 8-0 in the Mid-American Conference and the men 7-1, the two first-place programs are off to their best combined league start in school history. (One of the best in the nation, too. Only South Dakota State has its two programs off to a better start, with the men 8-0 in the Summit League, the women 9-0.)

How 'bout that?

As if it weren't already the case as every billionaire and their mother snags a ticket to space, dare we say it is now officially the Year of the Rockets.

Sorry, what's that? Check back in March?

Fair enough.

But, for now, let us appreciate these dual surprise stories, just as these two Toledo teams appreciate — and feed off — each other.

"It feels really good," guard Quinesha Lockett said. "We don't want to lose. They don't want to lose. We just want to keep it going."

And the higher the bar the better.

One of the cool things about the men's and women's success is that both teams are genuinely rooting for each other. Both coaches, too.

While the relationship between the two basketball coaches at a school can be as cool as the January air — think Jim Calhoun and Geno Auriemma back in the day at UConn — that's hardly the case with Tod Kowalczyk and Tricia Cullop.

"I couldn't be happier for Tricia," said Kowalczyk, who came to Toledo in 2010, two years after Cullop. "It's a fun environment. Our staffs are close. I consider Tricia one of my closest friends and someone I've learned from and bounce ideas off of. [Athletic director] Mike O'Brien could tell you that's extremely rare, to have the men's and women's staffs as close as we are.

"Sometimes there's jealousy, there's fighting over gym space, fighting over gym time. We have none of that. Never have. Never will."

Cullop agreed.

"I watch as many of their games as I possibly can," she said. "I'm a diehard fan, as well, and Tod's a very good friend. We're always pulling for each other. Today in the office, the men's staff was in there watching film, getting ready for the next team, saying, 'Hey, go get 'em. We'll be there.'"

And, again, that's not hot air.

The men's team was there, watching the women get 'em, again.

A night after Toledo thumped Ohio in the early statement of the men's conference season, the women followed with an exclamation point of their own, reminding the crowd of 4,024 just how much fun these games can be.

No sweat if anyone forgot.

After Cullop did nothing but win in her first nine seasons at Toledo — she was a remarkable 108-44 in the MAC — the past four years marked a return to earth (34-40 in league play), with no obvious date for the next launch. The Rockets were picked to finish eighth in the conference this year.

But the coach had a sneaking feeling about this team.

The Rockets returned four starters, including standout junior guards Sophia Wiard and Lockett, along with the indispensable Sammi Mikoniwicz, a sophomore from Rossford. All they needed was depth and size, the team lacking a single player taller than 6 feet.

So Cullop got just that, bringing in three transfers — including 6-5 post Hannah Noveroske (Indiana) — and 6-2 freshman Jessica Cook. Before Toledo's league opener, she remembers Kent State coach Todd Starkey telling her, "Boy, you went out and got everything you absolutely needed. You got all the pieces you were missing."

And, boy, he wasn't kidding.

The Rockets are still solid on offense. The difference is their defense, no longer having to help like crazy in the post, is now elite. They give opponents less room to maneuver than an airplane bathroom, as Buffalo, which came in with the league's top offense, was the latest to learn. Toledo held the Bulls (11-5, 5-1) to just 33.8 percent shooting.

UT has the league's best scoring (57.7 points per game) and shooting (34.7 percent) defense by a wide margin, with the latter figure ranking 19th nationally.

Add it all up, and Cullop can't stop smiling.

"This group is an absolute joy to coach," she said. "They bring great energy, they're great teammates, they're just wonderful kids. And I'm glad our fans can be back to enjoy this, too."

Including, of course, all those tall guys in the stands.

Your turn, men.