Before Saturday's night 45-42 win over Ball State - a victory that finally snapped a school-record 19-game losing streak - University of Toledo men's basketball coach Gene Cross showed his beleaguered team a snippet from the film Coach Carter.
The message from the clip was then reiterated in Cross' pep talk - "Nobody can stop you but yourself."
"He gave us a pretty good speech before the game," said junior co-captain Justin Anyijong, who led the Rockets (4-26, 1-14 Mid-American Conference) with 13 points. "He told us, 'Have fun and just play.' And that's what we did."
Cross explained afterward that the motivational ploy was done with one thing in mind.
"We had to figure out a way to get out of our own way," he said. "And I think we figured out how to do that today."
In their final game of the season at Savage Arena no less.
"Every game we've played we've been building up to this," Anyijong said. "Then in practice the last two days, we were competing. That's the one thing that sticks in my mind.
"I'm very proud of my teammates and the coaching staff and everybody else for just continuing to have that faith in us and keep pushing us every day trying to bring the best out of us."
For the first time since its last win - a 73-72 victory over Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne on Dec. 10 - UT was able to put together a sustained effort for 40 minutes.
The Rockets led 30-15 at halftime, and even as Ball State slowly carved away at UT's 18-point lead early in the second half, they didn't falter as they have so many other times this season.
"We almost let it away," said freshman guard Malcolm Griffin, who had eight points. "Like coach said in the locker room, we bent but we didn't break. It was good to stay poised and play some defense. That's what won us the ballgame."
Cross said his players drew from the experience of a 55-54 loss to Indiana State on Dec. 19, when the Rockets did break in the final minute after possessing a five-point advantage with 1:07 remaining.
"I think back to Indiana State and how disappointing that loss was, but I think our guys learned from that situation," Cross said. "We were poised enough to make it through [this time]."
Cross added that he tried to stay as calm as possible for his players down the stretch.
"Anytime when you look in the face of your leader, if you see panic then you might panic as well," Cross said. "On the inside, I felt like I might have been on the elliptical machine or the treadmill because my heart was racing. But I didn't let them see me panic."
And while they did show some nerves in crunch time and they did make mistakes, the Rockets still found a way to pull out their first MAC win of the season.
"They made the right plays when they needed to and iced the victory," Cross said. "I was pleased. I was happy for them."
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