UT moves into first place tie in MAC West after win over EMUWritten by Mike Bauman | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When it comes to his players, Toledo head coach Tod Kowalczyk has carried the same philosophy at all of his stops.
“I’m not into the ego of starting lineups,” Kowalczyk said. “I always tell our guys, ‘Don’t be worried about who starts; be worried about finishing games.’”
Though junior guard and Mid-American Conference leading scorer Rian Pearson didn’t start Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan due to missing the team breakfast, he finished with game highs of 29 points and 14 rebounds off the bench to help Toledo prevail 60-52 over EMU in Savage Arena for its fifth-straight win.
“My alarm clock didn’t go off, so [Kowalczyk] said I’d be out for starting,” said Pearson, who missed the team’s 10 a.m. breakfast.
“It’s time for him to mature and we’ll continue to send him messages, but he needs to grow up,” Kowalczyk said of Pearson, who also got benched to start the second half of UT’s Jan. 23 loss to Akron for what his coach said was ‘about being a good teammate.’ “I love him to death, but he needs to grow up.”
Pearson did, however, make up for his lack of maturity with his double-double against the Eagles.
“I just think in a zone, I play real well in zones,” Pearson said of the win, which put Toledo into a first place tie in the MAC West Division with Western Michigan. “So I think that played to my strengths for that game.”
On one particular play in the second half, Pearson saved the ball from going out of bounds and got the steal on the defensive end, hustled the ball up the floor, then switched hands in the lane and put the ball behind his back before finishing the finger roll over top of an Eagles’ defender to make it 32-26 with 16:28 remaining.
The play was so dazzling that even Kowalczyk, whose energy on the sidelines is usually that of the intense and fiery variety rather than the joyous and exuberant variety, high-fived Pearson as he made his way down the Rockets’ bench following his bucket.
“I thought it was important because he started at the end of the bench and gave everybody five,” Kowalczyk said with a smile in the postgame press conference. “I didn’t want to miss out on that. He got everybody [high-fives]. He got everybody on that. He made that play, he went right down the line. I wanted to make sure I got five from him, too.
“That was a heck of a play. I mean, that’s as good of a college basketball play as you’ll see.”
While UT (11-10, 7-3 MAC) struggled against EMU’s 2-3 zone, one that’s anchored by seven-footer Da’Shonte Riley (four blocks), Toledo played well on defense and made plays down the stretch to stave off a late rally from the Eagles.
The Rockets held Eastern Michigan (11-12, 4-5 MAC) to 33.9 percent shooting from the field in the game and scored 19 points off the Eagles’ 19 turnovers.
“All we preached over the last 48 hours was frustration,” Kowalczyk said. “You have to play through frustration [and] not allow it to affect how you guard because you when play against that 2-3 zone, it can get frustrating. They play so slow.
“They want this game to be in the 40s. We got 60 tonight. We want it to be in the 70s. It’s contrasting styles.”
After EMU hit two three-pointers to cut Toledo’s late 45-37 lead down to two, senior guard Dominique Buckley (13 points) knocked down two treys of his own to make it a two-possession game by the 2:04 mark. The closest Eastern Michigan got after that was five as UT picked up the victory in a game in which the Rockets shot just 64.5 percent from the free-throw line.
Heading into the contest, the Rockets were shooting a MAC-leading 78.8 percent from the charity stripe on the season.
“It was rough, but we grinded it out on defense, especially,” Buckley said. “And as far as, like, the free throws go, we’ve been good all year. So it was rough for us to miss them, but we had to keep our head up and stay positive the whole time.”
The Rockets will be in action again on Feb. 13 when they hit the road to take on Buffalo (9-15, 4-6 MAC) at 7 p.m.