Before the University of Toledo men's basketball team hosted Eastern Michigan Saturday, there was a question as to whether or not the Rockets would be able to put aside a disappointing loss Wednesday at Northern Illinois.
Consider that question answered.
The Rockets demolished Eastern Michigan 76-51 at Savage Arena, clinching the seventh seed in the Mid-American Conference tournament with the victory that improved their record to 16-15 overall and 7-9 in MAC play.
UT finished in second place in the MAC's West Division, its highest finish since 2006-07.
As the seventh seed, Toledo will host No. 10 seed Miami at Savage Arena at 7 p.m. Monday.
In Saturday's win the Rockets got 27 points and 11 rebounds from Rian Pearson -- his eighth double-double of the season -- and career highs of 21 points and seven boards from Curtis Dennis. Dominique Buckley added 11 as UT won for the fifth time in the last six contests.
But the lone loss in that span was a 65-61 setback at Northern Illinois, which has just three MAC wins this season.
"It was a disappointment when we lost [at NIU]," Pearson admitted. "But we just had to bounce back and get our minds right for this game.
"It was hard, because that was a team we should have beaten. Heads were down a little bit. But I thought we put it behind us in our next practice."
Dennis said the Rockets' growing maturity played a role in the team putting the loss behind it.
"It was a setback, especially when you're on a good streak and you lose to a team you're supposed to beat," he said. "That's where maturing and mental toughness comes in.
"You can't let that game distract you from the big picture. We lost, we got ripped for it, but we didn't hang our heads too long. We knew we had Eastern Michigan, so we said, 'Let's get this win and get ready for the conference [tournament].' "
Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said he wasn't worried about his team bouncing back from the loss to the Huskies.
"When you have guys who care about the program, and care about their teammates, it's easy [to bounce back]," he said. "And that's what we have -- we have good guys.
"When you have knuckleheads, things can go south. And we don't have that."
The Rockets took command early, scoring nine straight points to turn a 12-12 tie into a 21-12 lead with 11:08 left. EMU came no closer than three points after that, and Toledo led 35-25 at the break.
"I thought our zone offense was very efficient," Kowalczyk said. "I think we're a good zone offensive team.
"I thought we lost sight of attacking inside, either off the dribble or in the post [the first time we played EMU], and we did a good job of that [in this game]."
Toledo scored 22 points in the paint in the first half, and a big reason was Pearson. He scored seven in that nine-point run and had 17 in the first half.
He shot 8-for-12 from the field in the first half, setting a tone far different from the first meeting of these two teams. In that game UT scored just 15 points in the first half and lost 41-38 on Jan. 21 in Ypsilanti, Mich.
"My role was to get in the high post and attack the gaps," Pearson said. "We ran more of a 'motion' offense, which got me more looks than the first time we played them."
Another difference between the two contests with the Eagles was that Dennis got his first career start for the Rockets Saturday and took advantage of it. He was 4-for-6 from the field and 2-for-4 on 3's in the first half to score 10 points.
"The last time we played them I really didn't shoot well," said Dennis, who was 4-for-10 from the field and 1-for-6 on 3-pointers in the first meeting. "We didn't shoot very well as a team.
"We thought shots would be there again, and I just wanted to hit them."
In the second half Toledo started with a 9-2 run to bump its advantage to 17 points with 16:57 left, and EMU came no closer than 14 points after that. The Rockets led by as many as 28 before settling on the final margin.
NOTES: The last time UT hosted a first-round home game in the MAC tournament was in 2006, when it was the No. 7 seed. The Rockets had a bye in 2007 and was a No. 8 seed in 2008, but played that game in Cleveland. … Dennis started in place of Richard Wonnell, the Genoa native who had started the previous eight contests. "I wanted to send Richard a message that he has to play better," Kowalczyk said. "He's got to defend better. He's lost sight of his defense a little bit -- he has to guard better." Wonnell did not score in 13 minutes Saturday but did have a rebound, a blocked shot, and a steal.
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.