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Rockets shake EMU, pick up 59-44 win to reach MAC final

03/15/2014, 2:06am EDT
By RYAN AUTULLO BLADE SPORTS WRITER
UT men advance to MAC final

Rian Pearson, who led Toledo with 18 points, takes off after making a steal against Eastern Michigan. The Rockets (25-5) meet Western Michigan (22-9) today for the MAC tournament title.

CLEVELAND — Rian Pearson and Nathan Boothe needed a third teammate to help University of Toledo put away Eastern Michigan.

They ended up getting three third wheels.

The inside-outside combination was on point Friday in a Mid-American Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinal. When their buddies arrived to the party at the 11th hour, it was time to celebrate.

All-MAC honorees Juice Brown, Justin Drummond, and J.D. Weatherspoon were no longer the missing links Toledo needed by the end of a 59-44 win at Quicken Loans Arena.

Brown was scoreless until he nailed a 3-pointer for an eight-point lead with six minutes left. Drummond, who began the night 1 of 8 from the field, followed about two minutes later with a corner dagger for a 12-point gap.

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view photos of the game.

Mix in a Weatherspoon free throw and a couple rebounds and UT had all the ingredients it needed to dispatch the Eagles for the second time in six days and finalize a championship game featuring two West Division members for the first time since 1996.

“They were two really big shots,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Juice is such a confident guy, you knew he had a big play in him.”

A third meeting with Western Michigan (22-9) awaits the Rockets (27-5), who split with the Broncos in the regular season, each controlling home court. WMU advanced in thrilling fashion, erasing an 18-point second half deficit and beating Akron in overtime 64-60. Akron, playing before a Zips-partisan crowd, was trying to advance to the title game for the eighth season in a row.

“Good team,” Kowalczyk said. “Unbelievably resilient.”

WMU and UT split division and overall conference titles but only one can attain the MAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The top two seeds will tip at 6:30 p.m. The last time the Rockets reached the NCAA tourney was 1980.

Pearson was motivated from the start, inducing an EMU shot clock violation to open the game and swishing a 3-pointer for UT’s first points. It also tied UT mark for most points in a season with 2,502, a number first reached by the 2011-12 team when he was a sophomore.

The fifth-year senior scored 15 of his 18 points in the half, slashing in the paint for layups against MAC defensive player of the year Da’Shonte Riley. Pearson, who added nine rebounds and three assists, is one of only three Rockets who played in the team’s last MAC tournament appearances two years ago.

“I was just going to will my team to victory and play hard,” he said.

Brown, a first-team All-MAC selection, missed his first six shots before hitting a 3 from for a 48-40 lead. Two personal fouls limited his participation in the first half to 12 minutes. His backcourt mate, Drummond, as he’s done many times, turned a bad game into a decent one. He accounted for eight of UT’s points in an 18-6 run to close the game. His 3-pointer for a 54-42 lead caused Kowalczyk to turn and acknowledge the several hundred Toledo fans sitting behind the team’s bench.

“It gave us a little cushion,” said Drummond, who had a double-double with 11 points and 10 boards. “It got the bench excited, got the crowd into it.”

Weatherspoon had two rebounds in the final surge and made a free throw to go up nine with 4:24 left. He closed with seven boards and five points.

Boothe was stationed in the high post of EMU’s 2-3 zone, totaling 13 points and four assists.

Glenn Bryant led the Eagles (21-14) with 11 points, while Darell Combs had nine.

“When we didn’t execute they capitalized,” said EMU coach Rob Murphy, whose team upset third-seed Buffalo on Thursday. “They did a great job on offense and even when they didn’t score they stopped us.”

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.

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