CLEVELAND – Hard to believe the Mid-American Conference houses five players better than University of Toledo's Rian Pearson.
Pearson, who earlier in the day was named second team all league, willed his team to victory Wednesday on a night when his ankle was bothering him and one of his starting teammates was mired in foul trouble. Pearson posted 20 points and 15 rebounds in UT's 75-72 second-round win over Central Michigan in the Mid-American Conference tournament at Quicken Loans Arena in a game that didn't finish until close to midnight.
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UT (18-15) advances to a quarterfinal meeting with No. 3 Ohio University at 9:30 p.m. Thursday. UT's most impressive win of the year came against the Bobcats, 77-73, on Feb. 8 when the Rockets clawed back from a 15-0 deficit. Western Michigan topped Northern Illinois, 71-54, in the first game of the evening and will play No. 4 Kent State.
“We're not here to win one game,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “It's about us trying to compete for a championship. Winning one game to us means nothing, to be honest with you. It's about us trying to win this thing. We think we're good enough.”
UT's Julius Brown, the MAC freshman of the year, made two free throws with 41 seconds to go, widening his team's lead to 70-67. CMU's Trey Zeigler followed with a bucket, but Brown went back to the line with 20 seconds remaining and made twice. Zeigler, a poor free throw shooter, missed twice from the line with 13 seconds to go. Brown made 1 of 2 with 10 seconds left, but CMU freshman Austin McBroom drilled a 3 five seconds later. The Rockets inbounded the ball to Dominique Buckley, who made two free throws with four seconds left. A McBroom 3 at the buzzer was off line. For the game UT, the MAC's best free throw shooting team, was 23 of 30 at the line.
“We shoot free throws every day in practice,” Brown said. “We know when it comes down to it, we focus and make free throws. … Everyone on our team can make free throws at the end.”
UT opened the second half on a 9-3 run, widening its margin to 44-34. It was a precarious gap, as anyone who has watched this team squander big leads with regularity can attest to. The Rockets nearly blew an 11-point advantage last month against the Chippewas and did blow a 16-point lead Monday before recovering and beating Miami. This time wasn't much different, as CMU ripped off seven straight points to close the gap to 66-64 with a tad more than two minutes to play. Andrew Coimbra's three-point play finalized the run. CMU then cut the lead to 68-67 when Cleveland native Derek Jackson drilled a 3-pointer with 56 seconds left.
Pearson was just 2 of 11 shooting in the first half, with most of his misses coming from within a few feet of the basket. Still, he had nine points and nine rebounds despite apparently turning his ankle midway through the half. Pearson finished third in the MAC player of the year voting on Monday and seemed like a safe bet to at least make first team after he was the league's second-leading scorer and third-leading rebounder in the regular season.
“He asked me today, who's the coaches that didn't vote for him. I said all of them,” Kowalczyk said. “He's a good player. He's a competitive guy. I don't think it means a thing to him. I think it's a great valuable lesson. He's the one who said it to me today – the guys that are on first team are all on the best teams. We need to learn from that for next year.”
UT forward Matt Smith picked up three fouls in the first half and wasn't on the floor after the break. His replacement, sparsely used Delino Dear, fouled out with 2:13 to go.
Pearson unveiled his jumper in the second half, scoring six straight for UT and pushing the lead to 13 with roughly eight minutes to play. He finished with his tenth double-double of the season.
Zeigler, the UT killer, posted 10 points in the first half in only 12 minutes because of foul trouble and finished with 17.
“I just tried to pick up my teammates and also myself when I twisted my ankle,” Pearson said.
That was a nice bounce back effort from Monday when he shot 1 of 12 and scored three points in a 54-53 win at Bowling Green. Zeigler poured in 33 points against UT last month and was averaging 26 points in four career games against the Rockets.
“I thought tonight we made him work for everything that he possibly could,” Kowalczyk said. “I thought that was a big difference in the game.”
NOTES: Reese Holliday started for the first time since the Kent State game on Jan. 28 and finished with 12 points and nine rebounds. He replaced Curtis Dennis, who started the past two games after overtaking the job from a struggling Richard Wonnell.
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