Men’s Basketball: UT tops McNeese State in ESPN BracketBusterWritten by Nate Pentecost | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Rockets’ last ESPN BracketBuster contest, a matchup with McNeese State, held little significance in the big scheme of things. Nevertheless, the University of Toledo men’s basketball team’s 79-66 win against the Cowboys on Feb. 23 served as a solid tune-up for their upcoming showdown with fellow Mid-American Conference (MAC) West Division-leading Western Michigan.
“These games are hard. I’ve been a big proponent of BracketBusters, but I’m now on the other side. I’m very thankful that it’s over with, that this is the last year of it,” said UT head coach Tod Kowalczyk. “It’s run its course. Let’s be honest. Today was a meaningless game besides the fact that it goes in the left hand column as a win. It’s got no bearing on our season whatsoever.
“It was all about us getting better. I thought we really got better this week in practice, I’m not really not sure how much better we got today in the game, but we have got better in practice.”
The Rockets (13-11 8-4 MAC) clash with McNeese State (11-14, 5-10 Southland Conference) was a rematch of the opening round of last season’s CollegeInsider.com Invitational, a game the midnight blue and gold took by a score of 76-63.
Keeping pace with the home team most of the first half, the Cowboys stayed within two possessions or closer until a steal by freshman center Nathan Boothe resulted in a transition three-pointer by senior guard Dominique Buckley, making the score 23-16 with 6:26 until the break. The Rockets finished the half on an 18-6 run, including three-pointers by Buckley, Reese Holliday and two three-pointers from forward Matt Smith to take a 35-22 halftime advantage.
Toledo finished with five players in double figures. Rian Pearson led the way with his third double double in four games, pouring in a game-high 21 points and pulling down a contest-best 11 boards. He was joined by Smith (3 of 4 from beyond the arc) and Holliday who contributed 13 apiece and Buckley and Juice Brown who added 10 of their own. Brown recorded a double double as well, adding an afternoon-high 11 helpers.
“I just think we’re focused on trying to win a MAC West Championship,” Pearson said. “We’re getting closer and closer to Western Michigan so we’re locked in.”
The lead inflated to a game-high 24 at 66-42 on a layup from Juice Brown at the 8:47 mark of the second frame. A trio of three-pointers off the hands of senior guard Jeremie Mitchell helped cut the deficit to 11 with 4:26 left but an old-fashioned three-point play and a fast break lay-in from Pearson ensured the Cowboys would gain no further ground.
Mitchell ended the contest with a team-high 18 points, sinking 6-of-9 shots from beyond the arc. Junior forward Pete Kpan, the only other McNeese State player in double figures added 11 points off the bench.
Toledo shot 49 percent (28-of-57) from the field, including 63 percent (15-of-24) in the second half and 44 percent (8-of-18) from three-point range. The Cowboys connected on 43 percent (24-of-56) of their shots, hitting 37 percent (7-of-19) from downtown.
“We’re taking care of the ball and guarding better,” Smith said. “We have our mind set on one goal and that’s to become MAC West champions. We couldn’t put ourselves in a better position.”
The midnight blue and gold host WMU (17-9, 8-4) on Feb. 27 in a showdown that very well could decide the MAC West. The Broncos topped Toledo 79-56 in Kalamazoon, Mich., on Jan. 16 at University Arena where the Rockets have won once since 2002.
“It’s going to be a big challenge. We’re just going to have to step up and play to their toughness,” Pearson said. “Last game I don’t think we matched their toughness so we have to do that, rebound and get after it on the defensive end.”
UT and Western follow the contest by closing out their seasons with their second games against division foes Eastern Michigan (12-15, 5-7), Ball State (10-14, 4-8) and Northern Illinois (5-19, 3-9). The trio of squads are 1-5 against the MAC West co-leaders this campaign, with Ball State having beaten the Broncos 70-60 on Feb. 13.