University of Toledo men's basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk felt myriad emotions Thursday morning while traveling home after his team's brutal loss at Northern Illinois.
He was disappointed with his team's lack of maturity in a 65-61 setback and upset they expected the dreadful Huskies to just roll over on their home floor.
Kowalczyk also was relieved, knowing the Rockets' hopes of winning a division championship vanished about an hour before they suffered what might be their most frustrating setback in a season filled with them.
Eastern Michigan secured the Mid-American Conference West division title outright earlier in the evening when Darrell Lampley made a shot with one second to go at Western Michigan. In the end, it didn't matter much that UT's offense flatlined down the stretch, allowing NIU to prevail for just the fourth time this season.
"Yes, absolutely," Kowalczyk said when asked if he was relieved by EMU winning. "To be honest with you, the only thing good about this morning was knowing it didn't cost us."
Although Saturday's meeting with EMU at Savage Arena will be devoid of championship implications, it is not meaningless.
The Rockets (15-15, 6-9) can wrap up the seventh seed in the MAC tournament with a win or if Western Michigan loses Friday at Central Michigan. By virtue of Miami's loss Wednesday at Bowling Green, UT clinched a first-round home game on Monday evening against either Ball State or Miami.
Kowalczyk said he expects his team to play hard Saturday. That didn't always happen at NIU when UT went scoreless over the final 4 minutes, 27 seconds and was plagued by foul trouble.
"I think we thought it would be easy," Kowalczyk said. "Nothing on the road in this league is easy and we thought it would be easy. I don't think we talked enough. I don't think we had enough energy.
"I don't think we dealt with adversity very well."
Nothing about playing EMU (14-16, 9-6) is easy. The 2-3 zone employed by first-year coach Rob Murphy stymied UT in the first meeting --a 41-38 win for the Eagles -- and has concealed EMU's shortcomings on offense. Kowalczyk believes his team is more equipped to attack a zone than it was that day, noted by a solid shooting night against Bowling Green's zone a few weeks later.
UT can accomplish something unusual with a win. It has reversed the results of all four games against West foes from earlier in the year. Beating EMU would finalize a 5-for-5 mark.
"Overall, I like the mindframe of this team and how we're playing overall," Kowalczyk said.
"I'm not going to let one game deter from what we've accomplished and what we've done down the stretch. We're going to play hard and we're going to play well on Saturday."