Toledo's Jonathan Williams watches Bowling Green’s Dylan Frye shoot a 3-pointer during the Falcons’ win Feb. 4. The teams meet for a third time this season today in the first round of the MAC tournament. BLADE/LORI KING
Coming off one of the most exciting editions of the I-75 rivalry on the hardwood, the University of Toledo and Bowling Green State University will have a grudge match at Savage Arena today in the first round of the Mid-American Conference men’s basketball tournament.
The rivals battled back and forth Feb. 4 at the Stroh Center in an instant classic. Bowling Green ended up winning 104-100 in double overtime. With clutch shots, physical play, and the customary intensity that comes with the rivalry, the second matchup this season between the teams had it all.
The Jan. 17 game was less dramatic as Toledo pulled away from the Falcons in the second half of an 85-73 home win.
Now, in the third meeting between the teams this season, the stakes are higher with the winner moving on to face Ohio in a quarterfinal game Thursday at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The loser sees its season end.
“We were too inconsistent in both games,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “We had a great start at home and a really bad middle part of the first half. Then we finished the first half strong and played well in the second half. At their place, we were up big again and let them come back and certainly felt like we had chances to win that game and didn’t do it. Hopefully, we learn from it.”
Toledo (16-15, 9-9 MAC) completed its regular season with a big win Friday at Eastern Michigan that helped the Rockets secure a home game to open the MAC tournament.
“I feel like that was a great road win for us,” UT senior guard Jonathan Williams said. “Since I’ve been here, we had never won at Eastern, so that was a huge thing for us and I feel like we are going into the tournament with confidence.”
With a quick turnaround, Kowalczyk said Toledo tried hard to maintain its normal practice routine.
“The college basketball season, especially in the Mid-American Conference, is a lot of Tuesday-Saturdays and even sometimes Tuesday-Fridays,” Kowalczyk said. “You are used to the two days off between games. And we are creatures of habit. We’re in our same routine. Saturday was our film and lifting day and our walkthrough. Sunday was our practice day. It’s the same as it has been for the whole month of February and even part of January.”
Bowling Green (13-18, 7-11 MAC) finished its regular season with two consecutive losses (Kent State and at Buffalo) and lost five of its final seven games.
Despite its late-season struggles, the Falcons don’t have to look any further than last year for an example of what it takes to make a run. Last season, Bowling Green won at Kent State in the opening round and followed with a quarterfinal win against Central Michigan before falling to Akron in a semifinal.
“It helps the guys coming back, because they know what the atmosphere is like and what it takes to execute a game plan in a hostile environment,” BG coach Michael Huger said. “For the newcomers, this is their first go-round with this. They’ll learn that the physicality and pressure are amped up, and they will just have to be ready to play.”
BG sophomore Demajeo Wiggins, a Springfield graduate, said the Falcons will need to create their own energy in front of what should be a good road crowd.
“Tournament time is a new season for us,” Wiggins said. “We have a record of 0-0, and playing our rivals makes it more exciting. We need to feed off the energy, but we also have to play with composure. If we do that and follow the coaches’ game plan, hopefully we’ll come out victorious.”
The Feb. 4 win for Bowling Green snapped a six-game losing skid against Toledo and reassured the Falcons their best is good enough against the Rockets.
“It definitely helps your confidence,” Huger said. “It boosts your confidence to know that, if you play your best game, you can beat them. It will be tougher to beat them at Toledo, but we can do it.”
For fans, March is the most exciting time of the season. Coaches and players, on the other hand, work hard all year to be playing their best basketball at this time. For Toledo and Bowling Green, it is now MAC championship or bust.
“I’m always excited around this time of year,” Williams said. “It’s a win or go home situation and obviously our team wants to advance as much as we can. We just want to focus on not going home. We just have to execute and do the things that we do.”
Blade sports writer John Wagner contributed to this report.
Contact Brian Buckey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6110.