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Women's basketball poised to make run in MAC Tournament

Shelby Frieszell -- Guest Photographer
Shelby Frieszell -- Guest Photographer

It's tournament time, win-or-go-home season and midweek MACtion all in one.

Eight teams have already played the first round of the Mid-American Conference Tournament, and Miami women's basketball will take on the Toledo Rockets in the quarterfinals on Wednesday in Cleveland.

After back-to-back losses two weeks ago, the RedHawks (22-7, 13-5 MAC) secured a spot in the top four of the MAC and a bye through the first round of the tournament. They promptly lost their next game, for three losses in a row and their longest losing streak this season, but rebounded on Saturday against the Akron Zips.

"Loved the overall effort and enthusiasm today," head coach Megan Duffy said on Saturday.

Miami faced an 18-16 deficit after the first quarter, but held the Zips to seven in the second quarter to lead 32-23 at half. The 'Hawks rolled through the third and fourth to win 66-49.

Junior guard Lauren Dickerson finished with 19 points and six assists, while junior forward Savannah Kluesner had 14 points. As the sixth woman, senior forward Kristen Levering scored eight points and pulled down 10 rebounds for a near double-double.

"We went back a little bit to the staples that have been proven for our success this season and that's rebounding the basketball," Duffy said. "I think our versatility is something we've always talked about, and we got away from that a little bit in the last few games."

The RedHawks' postseason success will depend on whether they replicate their play from their 11-game winning streak or their three-game losing streak.

During the win streak, the program's longest since the 2010-11 season, Miami averaged 70.8 points per game, while its defense held opponents to an average of 60.6 points. During its losing streak, albeit eight games shorter, the 'Hawks averaged 61.6 points and allowed an average of 74.3 points.

Against the Zips, the RedHawks rebounded by scoring 66 points, coupled with a strong defensive effort to only allow 49 points and 30.2 percent shooting from the field.

"One thing [Duffy] gets on us a lot about is [that] it's not necessarily how our offense is going, but how our defense is going," Levering said.

The 'Hawks finished second in the MAC for fewest points allowed and first in 3-point defense after the regular season.

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The staunch defensive effort defining Miami's success began when Duffy and her staff took over before last season. Duffy led the RedHawks to a 21-11 record and an impressive run in the MAC Tournament last year - it was the first time the 'Hawks had travelled to the Quicken Loans Arena since 2012-13.

The 'Hawks lost 61-58 in the semifinals to the eventual tournament champions, Central Michigan.

This year, as the No. 3 seed in the tournament, Miami will play No. 6 Toledo.

The Rockets defeated the No. 11 Ball State Cardinals 67-63 at home last night, though a strong second half from the Cardinals gave Toledo trouble.

Miami swept the Rockets this season, with a 65-64 win at Millett Hall and a 65-56 win in Toledo.

On Jan. 9, senior center Kaayla McIntyre led the Rockets with 23 points and nine rebounds. The RedHawks had four players in double figures - senior forward Kendall McCoy (17), senior guard Leah Purvis (12) and Dickerson (11), with Kluesner finishing with 16 points and 13 rebounds for a double-double.

A month and a half later, similar heroes produced a similar result. McIntyre finished with 24 points and nine rebounds, while Dickerson had 28 points and McCoy finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds for a double-double.

Despite the double-digit performances, defense will likely decide the outcome of the quarterfinal matchup. Toledo squeaks ahead of Miami for the No. 1-ranked defense in the MAC, allowing 60.2 points per game.

"This MAC Tournament is going to be awesome," Duffy said. "I can't wait to get to Cleveland [...] This is the madness we've been preaching to our team about -- what it looks like in March Madness and the thrill that anyone can beat you. The fact that we have the opportunity to play in March is tremendous and right where we want our program to be."

The defensive efforts will match up on Wednesday. Game time is to be announced and dependent on when the other quarterfinal games finish.

"[Fans are] going to see a lot of tough plays, they're going to see a lot of grit, a lot of determination, a no-quit attitude, diving on the floor, lots of charges being taken," Levering said. "They're going to see a lot of fun basketball."