UT’s Justin Drummond celebrates with fans after the Rockets wrapped up a Mid-American Conference regular-season title by beating Eastern Michigan. Drummond scored 22 points.
Three hundred sixty-five days ago debate gave way to spontaneous celebration when the University of Toledo basketball team drove home to Savage Arena from southeast Michigan to cut down nets following a road win over Eastern Michigan.
The Rockets, banned from the postseason, were announcing themselves as champions despite no formal recognition.
On Saturday there was no debate, no ruffling feathers at the league office. The Rockets are Mid-American Conference champions — both of the regular season, and, for the second year in a row, of the West division. Saturday’s 77-66 triumph over Eastern Michigan signals the coronation of the program’s rebirth, delivering Toledo its eighth regular-season title and its first undefeated home record (15-0) in 47 years.
Toledo is sharing both championships with Western Michigan, which edged the Rockets on criteria for the top seed in this week’s MAC tournament. The budding rivals, plus Buffalo and Akron, make up the favorites to escape Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday with the MAC’s bid to the NCAA tournament. Toledo will play a semifinal game at 9 p.m. Friday.
“There were so many things to play for tonight,” said coach Tod Kowalczyk, who downplayed the significance of his 200th head coaching win. “I thought our energy, our toughness, and our togetherness were maybe the best they’ve been all year.”
Spearheaded by Rian Pearson’s inspiring senior day send-off, Toledo came up with answers to a 2-3 zone that confounded the Rockets in a 21-point loss last month at EMU. One of three seniors who may have played his final game at Savage Arena, Pearson set an energetic tone early with seven of his 17 points in the opening five minutes. Pearson, whom Kowalczyk suggested afterward should someday be in the school’s hall of fame, added 12 rebounds for his third double-double, and contributed four assists and four steals.
The Rockets (26-5, 14-4) shot a season-high 48 percent from outside, connecting on 12 of 25 treys to loosen the zone for a diversified attack in the second half.
Freshman Jonathan Williams, who had missed his prior 13 3s, drained four of them for 12 points. Julius Brown (13 points) matched Pearson with three triples. Justin Drummond, who scored all 22 of his points in the second half, hit from NBA range with the shot clock ready to expire for a 70-57 edge at the 3:34 mark.
“To beat a zone like that you have to knock down 3s,” Pearson said. “That’s one thing we didn’t do the first time.”
Mid-American Conference men's basketball championships won by Toledo:
■ 8: 1954, 1967, 1972, 1979, 1980, 1981, 2007, 2014
■ 1: 1980
After making just two two-point field goals in the first half, the Rockets dumped the ball into center Nathan Boothe for two buckets after the break. Their struggles to navigate the lane were over, as every cut and drive suddenly opened.
Boothe, like Drummond did not score until the second half. Matt Smith, who got a senior day start, didn’t score at all.
“They’re a frustrating team to play,” Kowalczyk said.
Toledo used a 17-0 run bridging both halves to seize a 12-point advantage, which EMU (18-13, 10-8) never overcame despite trimming the deficit to two points twice around the midway mark.
“We’ve come a long way,” said Pearson, who played his freshman season at Wisconsin-Green Bay. “We had a great year. Our team had great chemistry.”