It was one of those freeze-frame moments. Before the introductions at the next home game, when they dim the lights and cue up the big video board for Toledo Rockets’ highlights, this is the play you will see.
Eastern Michigan is breaking to the basket with a 2-on-1 advantage and one Eagle lofts an alley-oop pass intended for the other to produce a dunk.
The problem with the 2-on-1 edge was that the “1” was Toledo’s Rian Pearson. That might not have given the Rockets the outright edge in this scenario, of course, but it gave them a chance.
Sure enough, Pearson went high to slap the ball off its intended course. He chased after it, grabbed it crossing center court, dribbled it behind his back to avoid one defender, spun to leave another in his wake, and leaned toward the basket and softly rolled the ball off his fingers for a layup.
Toledo beat Eastern Michigan 60-52 Saturday night to claim a fifth straight win and move into a share of the Mid-American Conference’s West Division lead.
Pearson did not start. But did he ever finish. The UT junior topped the 20-point mark for the eighth time this season while putting together a line of 29 points, 14 rebounds, and a pair of assists.
We repeat; Pearson did not start. He is the MAC’s leading scorer, but maybe not the MAC’s best player and that discrepancy wears at times on UT coach Tod Kowalczyk.
Those who visit Rocket practice sessions will tell you Pearson has been ejected from drills more than once or twice. If you were at the Akron game a couple weeks ago, UT’s last loss, you might remember Pearson was benched to start the second half. Kowalczyk said it had to do with “being a good teammate,” and that the Rockets’ rally without him was a matter of “better team chemistry.”
Pearson said he heard all that and got it. He can have a bad game, but he can’t get down and let it become infectious.
Kowalczyk’s message to Pearson at the start of Saturday’s game was less philosophical and more practical; something along the lines of “set your darn alarm clock.”
Pearson overslept and missed the team breakfast. Instead of ordering off the menu at a restaurant near campus he had to make due with a muffin before UT’s shoot-around.
Maybe it was a blessing in disguise because he looked awfully hungry after riding the pine for almost five minutes.
And there were times against EMU that Pearson certainly did look like the MAC’s best player going against an Eagle 2-3 zone defense that is well-conceived, well-executed by long and athletic players, and often frustrating for opponents.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and Rian is the best zone offensive player I’ve ever had,” Kowalczyk said. “He can find the seams and the holes and loves coming from behind it to attack.”
As for Pearson’s highlight-reel, end-to-end play, Kowalczyk called it “as good a college basketball play as you’ll see.”
Pearson said it was all reaction. He didn’t even remember the behind-the-back dribble.
“Really? I don’t do that very often,” Pearson said. “I guess I must have sensed somebody going for a steal off my left hand. I had to get extra elevation to get to the alley-oop and the rest, I guess, was just reaction.”
So was his momentum carrying him past the Toledo bench, where every teammate and even Kowalczyk gave him a high-five or a slap on the rump as he hustled back to play defense.
Kowalczyk calls his star player a “kind-hearted and loving individual, a good person. The whole issue is maturity and making sure all his energy is in a positive direction. He has so much ability. And he has a strong personality, meaning the other guys will follow him. So he has to have positive energy.
“When he was a freshman it was a 50-50 thing. Now it’s 90-10, but I’m shooting for 100 percent from him. I want perfection.”
When they both find it, then we can have that discussion about just who is the MAC’s best player.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.