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Friday, July 25, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/9/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

UT’s Pearson, Smith started path to success

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

A good portion of the 6,000 fans at Savage Arena stayed for Senior Day festivities after Saturday’s 77-66 win by the University of Toledo men over Eastern Michigan.

And there was plenty to celebrate.

There is a Mid-American Conference regular-season co-championship.

There is that 15-0 home record this season at Savage.

There is the school record for wins, now at 26.

There is the promise of next week, as UT enters the MAC tournament in Cleveland two wins shy of its first NCAA Tournament appearance since the end of the 1979-80 season.

And there is this:

Four years ago, when coach Tod Kowalczyk and two of his friends, Rian Pearson and Matt Smith, arrived from Wisconsin-Green Bay, one of those heaven-sent package deals, the Rockets’ program was sad-sack, doggy-doo wretched.

If UT fans have nothing else to celebrate, it is that the ugly and the stench have been removed, hopefully for a long, long time.

Pearson is convinced that is the case.

“There’s no doubt in my mind they’ll keep this rolling,” he said after saying good-bye to home, sweet home with a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double.

Who knows what doubts were in his mind when he first arrived?

Toledo teams had won 11, 7, and 4 games the previous three seasons, and Kowalczyk’s first campaign, while Pearson and Smith were sitting out a transfer year, was another four-win nightmare.

We’ll do the math for you. That’s 26 wins in four years. As opposed, you might note, to 26 wins and counting in 2013-14.

From the point these two seniors stepped foot on the court in UT uniforms, the Rockets have three straight winning seasons, two consecutive MAC West titles, and now a regular-season crown to boot. Their win-loss record is 60-35. They have done it despite NCAA academic sanctions that sliced grant-in-aid numbers and, a year ago, unfairly handed them a postseason ban.

“This is the first year we’ve been on a level playing field with everybody else,” Kowalczyk, who got his 200th win as a college head coach, said. “I’m proud of where we’ve come from.”

And he will never forget the two guys who were there from the start and did so much to make this ride possible.

It’s an old story, but maybe worth repeating, that Kowalczyk met with his Green Bay team in March, 2010, to tell them face-to-face that he was leaving for Toledo. Before he could get his hat and coat on, Pearson and Smith told him they were going with him.

“I’m so thankful we had this opportunity, not just myself and my family, but Rian and Matt too,” TK said. “It didn’t take long to know this was the right move. Sure, the first year was hard to take; it was a miserable year. But Rian and Matt helped change that immediately. We’re truly the definition of family. We care about each other, we argue, but at the end of the day we have each others’ backs. I’m so glad they’re leaving here as winners.”

They needed some help from underclassmen in all classes for that to happen Saturday.

Junior point guard Juice Brown, as always, was there with key points and assists. (UT had 13 assists and just two turnovers in the second half.) Junior Justin Drummond had zero points at halftime and finished with 22. Sophomore Nathan Boothe was also shut out during the first 20 minutes and then hit three key field goals that proved to the Rockets, and to Eastern Michigan, that UT had a clue how to beat a zone defense in the paint with interior passes. And freshman Jonathan Williams came off the bench to beat it the other way, with four 3-pointers.

The Rockets made 12 treys in all, a welcome change from a dismal shooting effort in a 21-point loss at EMU less than one month ago.

The possibility exists the teams could meet again in Cleveland and, if so, it won’t hurt for Pearson to repeat the fast start he had Saturday, when he knocked down seven points and notched three steals in the opening five minutes.

“I was excited to play,” he said. “I’m very proud of this season. We’ve come a long way. This team has great chemistry.”

When the curtain drops on the 2013-14 season, a big part of the chemical formula will be lost.

But the legacy will remain.

“I’m proud I helped build this program from the bottom up,” Pearson said.

And that’s why so many fans stayed in their seats to say good-bye to Pearson, Smith, and walk-on Donald Beatty.

And to say thanks.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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