When Tod Kowalczyk first pulled up video clips of his team's opening round opponent in the CollegeInsider.Com Postseason Tournament, he saw something peculiar. He saw his team. Not literally, of course, but the similarities between Kowalczyk's University of Toledo squad and McNeese State are a tad eerie. Forget that both sport a blue and gold color scheme; their players are mirror images of one another. Also, both of them took an undesirable path to this point of the season, surviving and thriving despite depth that's nonexistent.
The inevitable difference, of course, is one team's season is intact and the other's season is done.
Torrid shooting early on, big nights from its marquee players, and an outstanding defensive job on McNeese's best player propelled UT to a 76-63 win -- its first in the postseason since 2000-01.
This rise-from-the-ashes season continues for the Rockets (19-16), who for now are tied for the best turnaround in the nation from a year ago. A second-round opponent won't be announced until probably late Wednesday when a handful of other first-round CIT games are decided.
"The fans and the program deserve it," said Curtis Dennis, who scored a game-high 18 points along with locking down Southland Conference player of the year Patrick Richard. "It's not the NCAA. It's not the NIT. But it's postseason."
Kowalczyk saw similarities in his 5-foot-10 point guard Julius Brown, who posted a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds, and McNeese's 6-1 Dontae Cannon. Ditto for UT's Dominique Buckley, who brutalized an early zone with three 3s, and the Cowboys' Jeremie Mitchell (10 points).
The most obvious comparison, though, involved the game's stars. The wiry 6-4 Richard, Kowalczyk asserted, is a right-handed version of UT's Rian Pearson.
"That's a good comparison," McNeese coach Dave Simmons said when told of Kowalczyk's comments. "But his [small forward] was a lot better than our [small forward] tonight."
Pearson had one of his typical nights, totaling 17 points and seven rebounds. Richard missed 13 of 17 field goal attempts and was stuck on five points before scoring another five late when the game was no longer in question. Of Richard's 36 minutes, Dennis and Reese Holliday guarded him about evenly.
McNeese (17-16) learned of this matchup late Sunday, boarded a 19-seat plane Monday, and played flat Tuesday. The Cowboys were sluggish defending the perimeter at the start, and Dennis and Buckley made them pay by drilling three 3s a piece in the first half to inspire a 14-point lead.
"They came out hitting the 3 and we didn't come out with any energy," Richard said. "We came out lackadaisical, like we weren't interested in the game, which is not good at all."
By halftime, UT led just 36-34, as Desharick Guidry (11 points), Adrian Fields (11), and Mitchell (10) combined for six buckets in a 14-2 run. Breezy defense by Pearson could be traced to four of those baskets, Kowalczyk said.
"We know we got lackadaisical on defense," Brown said.
McNeese never took the lead, and UT's 11-0 run midway through the half erased any concerns of a collapse.
UT's 61.4 field goal percentage is its highest since the 2003-04 campaign. Brown's 11 assists are the most by a Rocket since Kashif Payne dished out 11 against Western Michigan in 2005-06.
No bracket exists in the CIT, so UT's second-round opponent is not predetermined. That being said, if Bowling Green wins on the road Wednesday at Oakland, many are clamoring for a rematch of the I-75 rivalry won by the Falcons in February. Leading that charge is Kowalczyk. "Oh, I'd enjoy it," he said. "I'd enjoy it, our program would enjoy it, I think everybody in this community would enjoy it -- the Bowling Green fans, the Toledo fans. What better way to play in the postseason than against your rival?"
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