University of Toledo player Julius Brown, 20, stops his drive as Buffalo Bulls player Tony Watson, 1, defends during the second half at Savage Arena.
This season has featured all sorts of head scratching and frustrating losses for the University of Toledo men's basketball team.
Climbing to the top of that list, perhaps, is a 72-65 setback to Buffalo on Saturday evening at Savage Arena.
Facing one of the Mid-American Conference's top teams, UT blew a 13-point lead in the second half, failed to secure important rebounds, and shrunk when it needed to rise up.
It all added to another maddening night for a young team that has yet to learn how to prevail during "winning time" -- the term coach Tod Kowalczyk uses to describe the final minutes of a game.
The final score is a tad misleading. Buffalo scored the game's final 10 points and didn't bury the Rockets until Titus Robinson's break-away dunk with nine seconds to go.
Normally such a meltdown would draw the ire of a team's head coach, particularly one like UT's Kowalczyk, who has seen this story over and over and who was -- and probably still is -- angry at the officials. UT is 2-6 in games decided by three points or less, and this one stings just as bad as the others.
Kowalczyk, though, wasn't mad after the game. In fact, he showered his team with more compliments than he typically does after a win.
"Feel bad for our guys," Kowalczyk said as he began his news conference. "They played their hearts out. We competed. We did all the things we needed to win the game."
Kowalczyk corrected himself, noting that the Rockets could have done a better job rebounding. Trailing by two with 41 seconds to go, UT couldn't corral the ball after Javon McCrea missed his second of two free throws. Buffalo's Jarod Oldham, who snagged the ball and was fouled, followed with another miss from the line. The Bulls got the ball back and Tony Watson made two to extend the lead to 70-65.
"Huge play," Kowalczyk said. "I tell our guys all the time that [rebounding] wins and loses games. Tonight, it cost us. I'm not sure it cost us the game, because we were down two at that time, but there's a good chance it probably did."
For the game, Buffalo (14-6, 7-2) won the rebounding battle 50-32 and pulled down 18 offensive boards.
Two missed free throws by UT's Reese Holliday with 2:02 remaining loomed large. The Rockets (10-13, 2-7) had a chance to go up by three points on that possession, and instead, they never scored again.
"We need to work on closing out games better," said Rian Pearson, who poured in 26 points. "We're starting games [well] but we're not closing out. Defensive rebounds killed us."
Pearson was right about playing well early. The first half, in which UT led 40-31 when it was over, might be the Rockets' finest 20 minutes of the season.
With UB's leading scorer McCrea on the bench for the final 12 minutes, Pearson went to work, mixing an array of jump shots with tough runners in the lane. He had 16 points at the break before logging his fourth straight game of 20 points or more.
The second half began where the first half left off, with Pearson dropping in two jumpers to bring the score to 46-33 with about 17 minutes left.
"That 13 [point advantage] needed to get to 16 and try to do it that way," Kowalczyk said. "We went through a lull and had a hard time scoring."
UT's lead ended on a Robinson layup that tied the game at 55-55 with 6:48 left.
Kowalczyk grew incredulous over several foul calls down the stretch, including one against Richard Wonnell that sent McCrea to the line late. Buffalo might have gotten away with a no-call earlier when UT's Curtis Dennis threw up an air ball in the paint with 1:17 to go.
"I don't know what an offensive foul is in the post anymore," Kowalczyk said. "Obviously, neither [do] the three guys that were working the game tonight."
UT's Julius Brown recorded a season-high nine assists to go along with 10 points. The Rockets' 10 turnovers tied a season low.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160, or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.
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