Toledo's Jordan Lauf cries out in pain during the first half. Lauf exited the game to return in the second half. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH
CLEVELAND — Like Randy Newman once crooned, Cleveland is known as the City of Magic, City of Light.
Which, of course, the Toledo basketball team knows is not true.
For the Rockets, there is never magic here and certainly no light — their NCAA tournament dreams gone dark early the past 37 seasons and counting.
Just once you think the basketball gods would toss Toledo a bone. But another team in blue and gold learned in the cruelest terms Thursday night that March is designed to shatter your heart in a 67-66 loss to Ohio in the MAC tournament quarterfinals.
Even by Rockets standards, this one was a drop kick in the head.
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In a game both sides seemed to win and lose multiple times, Kenny Kaminski’s winning jumper with seven seconds left touched off delirium on one bench and despair on the other.
“Felt really Marchy out there,” Ohio coach Saul Phillips said.
The lasting image for me will be Toledo’s Jordan Lauf in the disbelieving moments afterward, hands on his knees, frozen in place for a good 20 seconds. He had just pounded a zero-hour shot off the backboard and was either devastated, physically unable to move or, more accurately, both.
If saying a player left everything on the court is the hoariest of cliches, it applied to Lauf, the senior from Napoleon and the soul of the Rockets.
Lauf collapsed to the floor in the opening minutes like he had been walloped by a two-by-four, spasms ripping through his back. He left for the locker room, and all but took Toledo’s hopes with him.
Yet, his presence would carry the Rockets through the night.
Toledo rallied without Lauf, conjuring his in-your-face example in building a 32-17 lead, then again with him. Didn’t matter Lauf’s body was a wreck.
“In the locker room,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said, “he couldn’t even take off his shoes.”
He returned, and more than performed admirably. Wincing with every step, the kid with two bum knees and a mangled back kindled the Rockets’ comeback. After Toledo went frozen, Ohio warmed, and a 15-point lead was suddenly an eight-point deficit midway through the second half, Lauf answered with a pair of 3s and the game-tying layup.
We can second guess a lot about what happened from there. Most notably, Steve Taylor — a 48 percent free-throw shooter who missed the front end of a one-and-one with the Rockets leading by one in the final seconds — should not have been in position to take the biggest shots of the season. Kowalczyk admitted that was a mistake.
The what-could-have-beens will endure forever.
But we’ll save all the armchair analysis for another day. Ultimately, the end was fitting. A talented but threadbare Rockets team had many issues, but effort was rarely one of them. Think about this: With Lauf as its hard-driving model, the same program that once gave a passing interest on the other end of the court led the MAC in scoring defense — in regulation — in conference games this season.
If the Rockets (17-16) were an ordinary team in what has increasingly become an average MAC program, they did themselves proud in the finale.
Nobody more than Lauf. As Phillips told reporters afterward, nobody said March is supposed to be fair.