Toledo's Jonathan Williams passes over Ismail Ali of Bowling Green during Monday's MAC Tournament game at Savage Arena. BLADE/LORI KING
The game could be football or foosball, Four Square or Connect Four, pie eating or cow tipping.
If the challengers were the University of Toledo and Bowling Green, it would matter.
Monday night’s rubber game between the rivals in the first round of the Mid-American Conference basketball tournament was no exception.
At stake was merely 10 months of crowing privileges, a ticket to Cleveland, and an invitation to dream. Everything.
And, for Toledo, a whole lot more. You did not need a pressure gauge to discern which team the heat was on here at Savage Arena.
While Bowling Green retains the fresh optimism of a rebuilding program, the Rockets needed to — and did — prove they have not gone stale.
A Toledo team that doddered to the finish each of the past two years did anything but in their 77-62 win of the Falcons, relying again on — believe it — a whitewashing defense and a little of everything from just about everyone in postponing spring break for a coveted trip east on I-80.
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For a program bounced from the first round of the tournament a year ago — and one that at times felt directionless — it was a small but needed step back in the right direction.
And just maybe the start of an extended postseason run. Don’t everyone look at once, but the road to the dance is wide open as ever.
The seventh-seeded Rockets play Ohio in Thursday’s quarterfinals and — should they win — likely third-seeded Buffalo in the semifinals. Toledo throttled the Bulls in the MAC opener and won at Ohio in the teams’ only meeting.
If a deep tournament run feels unlikely with Toledo’s well-chronicled depth concerns, stranger things have happened to far less talented teams.
“When you get to Cleveland, anything can happen,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Anything.”
A nice run this week may be just what the program needs. Kowalczyk forever deserves credit for shepherding the Rockets from the contamination zone left behind by Gene Cross. More than lend the program needed stability, he guided the Rockets from four wins in his debut season to within a victory of their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1980 in his fourth. Kowalczyk was a first-rate coach then and has not forgotten his trade.
But Toledo has since returned to the mean, falling from 27 wins in 2014 to 20 in 2015 to — as of Monday night — 17 victories the past two years. The Rockets frittered away the sensational final act of Nathan Boothe last year and are in danger now of doing the same with the all-MAC senior seasons of Jon Jon Williams and Steve Taylor, Jr. — not to mention the excellent farewell of Jordan Lauf.
None of this is to say it is now or never for the Rockets.
Despite losing four senior starters, Toledo has good reason for hope next season. Guard Jaelan Sanford and center Luke Knapke should build on nice years while the Rockets will bring in a couple ready-made transfers from big-time programs: senior swingman Tre’Shaun Fletcher from Colorado and freshman guard Willie Jackson from Missouri, will be eligible for league play. The Rockets are also high on their three incoming freshmen.
Still, they had done little lately to earn the benefit of the doubt. Monday night was a good step back in the right direction.