CLEVELAND — Toledo entered Friday night’s Mid-American Conference semifinal as the league’s highest-scoring team, averaging 80.6 points.
Eastern Michigan came in as the top defensive team, allowing an average of 64.7 points.
The teams split during the regular season. EMU won in its building 65-44. UT won the rematch at Savage Arena 77-66.
So when they hooked up again in Friday’s nightcap game at Quicken Loans Arena, it seemed fairly obvious that if the score was in the 50s or 60s, the Eagles should win. Seventy or above, it should be all Rockets.
The final score was Toledo 59, Eastern Michigan 44.
Now, there’s some role reversal for you.
“I just thought we guarded awfully well, start to finish,” said UT coach Tod Kowalczyk. “The intensity started with [point guard] Juice Brown and it was infectious. It went through the whole team.”
EMU scored 16 points in the second half, making only seven field goals in 31 tries, including 1-of-13 from 3-point range.
Toledo’s defense was a big part of it.
There was something else involved.
Earlier in the day, the top two seeds in the MAC women’s tournament, Bowling Green and Central Michigan, lost in the semifinals. As in the men’s brackets, the two top-seeded teams based on regular-season records get what amounts to a triple bye through to the semis of the conference tournament.
Players and coaches from both of the losing women’s teams hinted at the rust factor in what turned out to be one-sided losses.
Look, there isn’t a coach in this league or any other that would turn down as many byes as they could get to start postseason play with the biggest possible advantage.
Were the Rockets rusty? Maybe. They weren’t their usual selves on offense and that can be harmful against a team like Eastern that plays a very active zone defense very well.
Eastern was playing its fourth tournament game in five days and fifth in seven including the regular-season finale at Toledo. UT’s defense was good, sure, but it got better and better in the second half as fatigue set in and the Eagles began to lose their legs.
“We never could get a lead to put pressure on [Toledo] to have to make a play,” said Eastern coach Rob Murphy. “Five games in seven days is tough on anybody. I thought our guys fought hard, but …”
It had to play a role in the first men’s semifinal, too, as top-seeded Western Michigan came back from an 18-point deficit in the second half to beat Akron, a team that treats The Q, where it has had a remarkable run of success, like a second home court. This time, though, the Zips gave it away and lost in overtime.
There’s a reason those top seeds and the resulting tournament byes are such precious rewards.
Western Michigan and Toledo used it all to full advantage and now the two foes, who also split home and away during the regular season, will make it an all-West Division final today with the winner going on to the Big Dance, the NCAA tournament.
The Rockets will hope to get more players involved on offense more quickly in that 6:30 tip.
Rian Pearson was spectacular early against EMU, scoring 15 points and dishing off three assists during the first half. He finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. Nathan Boothe was a factor throughout.
One of the recipes for beating EMU’s zone, which features a 7-foot center guarding the paint, is to draw him out to the high post against Boothe’s perimeter shooting game. If he bites, then Boothe can make good passes to teammates cutting to the basket.
How good was that plan? Toledo’s 6-9 center led the Rockets with four assists.
Offensively, Pearson and Boothe were a two-man show for much of the game, but got some help as UT broke open a game it led just 41-38 with an 18-6 run to the final horn.
Now, it’s one win for the Rockets’ first NCAA berth since the 1979-80 season.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.