Towels draped around their necks and relief written across their faces, the University of Toledo men’s basketball players waved good-bye to a sea of their supporters.
The Rockets won’t play another game at Savage Arena until next season. For a while, it looked like they might not play any game until next season.
Of the long list of improvements this team has made, playing well with a big lead isn’t one of them. It nearly cost them Monday evening, but in reality, who cares? All that matters is seventh seed UT is advancing to the second round of the Mid-American Conference tournament after dispatching a pesky Miami team 60-53.
On a night when the No. 5 and No. 6 teams were upset at home, UT blew a 16-point second-half lead, reverting to the casualness that afflicted them twice last month in a loss to Buffalo and a close win against Central Michigan.
Speaking of the Chippewas, UT will meet them for a third time Wednesday at Quicken Loans Arena. CMU, the 11th seed, knocked off Bowling Green 54-53. That result was no less surprising than woeful Northern Illinois upending West champion Eastern Michigan 55-52.
After the game, Miami coach Charlie Coles confirmed the mounting belief that he’d retire after this season, his 16th at this school, when he uttered, “This is it. I’m gone.” UT is grateful it didn’t have similar words to share after losing a 49-33 lead with 11:16 to play.
“I wasn’t going to let my team give up the win,” guard Rian Pearson said. “We grinded it out, got defensive stops, and got big time rebounds.”
Pearson, who finished third in the league’s player of the year vote earlier in the day, posted 21 points and 13 rebounds for his ninth double-double of the season. Curtis Dennis, whose best games typically involve big offensive outputs, scored just seven points but locked down Miami sharpshooter Brian Sullivan down the stretch after Sullivan buried consecutive 3-pointers to punctuate Miami’s comeback and give it a 53-52 lead with 5:35 to go. The RedHawks (9-21) never scored again.
Not mentioning Reese Holliday as a key contributor would be a mistake. He scored only one field goal, but it was a biggie, as he forced defender Julian Mavunga to leave his feet and proceeded to drive baseline for a layup with one second on the shot clock that put UT up 58-53 with 1:49 left.
Moreover, Holliday led a defensive effort designed around stopping Mavunga. The MAC’s leading scorer at 16.6 points per game finished with 12 as he battled an injured foot and a UT defense that yelled “fire” every time he touched the ball. The coaching staff and players on the bench joined in the chorus.
“Fire means danger,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Fire, you can get burned.”
Mavunga attempted a season-high seven 3-pointers, and his team shot 29.
UT (17-15) finished on a 9-0 run to post its sixth win in seven games.
Conversely, he was thrilled with the 1,721 fans who showed up at Savage. That figure is by far the smallest of the year because it does not take into account season ticket holders. The student section was empty, as UT is on spring break.
“For us to have a crowd as good as we did, I tell you what, hats off to our administration for getting this game ready, but also for those fans to show up tonight and for their support all season.”
Wave good-bye. See you in Cleveland.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @RyanAutullo.