TOLEDO _ They say defense wins championships. And as usual, they were right.
Defense won top-seed Toledo its fourth Mid-American Conference Tournament championship in five years Monday night, as the Rockets stopped young Kent State practically cold to earn a 65-50 victory in the friendly confines of the SeaGate Centre.
The Golden Flashes' typically high-powered offense was rendered completely punchless by Toledo's swarming 2-3 zone.
"Toledo played an excellent game, especially on defense," said Kent coach Bob Lindsay. "They have a heck of a team. We knew we had to play a near-perfect game to win, and we didn't do it."
Actually, Kent's defense was darn near championship-caliber in its own right. The Flashes (22-7) limited Rockets' senior Kim Knuth, the second-leading scorer in the nation, to a mere 10 points and held Toledo (25-5) to its lowest point total since Dec. 2.
But they could do little else right on this night.
"We played well enough to win defensively, but offensively we weren't a very good team," said Lindsay. "This is what amounts to a home game for Toledo, and the only way you're going to win here is to execute on offense, shoot the ball well and defend.
"We didn't score enough points to win the game. That's the bottom line."
These two MAC juggernauts, who have played each other in the championship game for four straight years, went toe-to-toe early on.
The lead changed hands five times before Knuth gave Toledo the lead for good at the 7:51 mark, when she snared an offensive rebound between three Kent defenders and scored as she was hacked by Dawn Zerman to put the Rockets on top 19-17.
The Flashes' All-MAC point guard was forced to the bench for the remainder of the half with her second foul.
"(Sitting out) just frustrated me more than anything," said Zerman, who finished with 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting from the field.
Kent managed to hang tough without Zerman until the final minute of the half, when senior Leslie Favre drained a 3-pointer and tossed in a runner at the buzzer to give Toledo a 35-24 edge at the break.
Then Jennifer Markwood took over.
The junior center scored seven straight points, all on putbacks, to ignite an 11-0 run that put Toledo up 46-27 and in complete control with 14 minutes remaining.
Markwood finished with game-highs of 17 points and 11 rebounds, while Kent sophomore center Julie Studer struggled (11 points).
"I was very disappointed in the way we rebounded the ball," said Lindsay, whose squad was outboarded 36-24 and outscored 24-9 on second-chance points. "We were not aggressive at all. We did not block (Markwood) out, and that was a critical factor in the game."
Despite the deficit, the Flashes fought valiantly as always.
They trimmed the Toledo lead to 54-42 after a layup by freshman forward Jamie Rubis with 5:23 left to play, but could get no closer as the Rockets' defense refused to budge.
"Our defense was outstanding," said Toledo coach Mark Ehlen. "We were able to limit them to seven 3-point attempts, and that's one thing. But to stop their dribble penetration like we did at the same time, that's another."
The typically run-and-gun Flashes could never get things shifted into high gear. Their press was seldom used and never effective, they didn't score a single fastbreak point and Kent finished the game with more turnovers (19-17) and less points off turnovers (21-19) than Toledo.
To sum it up, it just wasn't the Flashes' night. But Lindsay refused to let the disappointment overshadow an otherwise spectacular season.
"I told the team before the game that regardless of what happens, we've had a tremendous year," he said. "We overcame a heck of a lot just to get this far."
The Flashes still have a shot at an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament or a WNIT Tournament bid. Pairings will be announced on Sunday.