CLEVELAND — Two themes are unfolding this season, one that is encouraging, the other which is not.
The University of Toledo men’s basketball team has played well enough to win road games against credible opponents throughout an early schedule riddled with boarding passes and bus rides.
The absence of toughness and composure in key moments mutes that point in a season that is starting to mirror last year for its number of gut wrenching setbacks.
Take Saturday’s 78-73 loss to Cleveland State for example. Despite meager performances from its two best players, Toledo led for the first 39 minutes and seemed poised to secure what would have been a signature win to jump-start December. A series of blunders in the final 30 seconds squashed those designs, and the Rockets remain winless in true road games.
"The next step for us is to trust each other and believe in each other and start winning close games on the road," coach Tod Kowalczyk said. "It’s a group that’s had some really good moments, but we have to start winning road games."
In what might be an apt summary of this season, in which Toledo also wasted second half leads at Northern Iowa and Florida Gulf Coast, Kowalczyk said, "We played well enough to win."
Mercifully, this stretch of eight of nine games played on the road will end this week after trips to Detroit on Wednesday and Eastern Illinois on Saturday.
Thoughts of beating CSU, which entered the day having knocked off 10 Mid-American Conference teams in a row, started to wither with 93 seconds left when Julius Brown’s sixth turnover led to an easy lay up by Sebastian Douglas, knotting the score 71-71. After Rian Pearson misfired at the other end, confusion on defense between Brown and Reese Holliday created an open look for Charlie Lee, who buried a 3-pointer with 31 seconds to go to lift the Vikings (6-2) to their first lead, 74-71.
"We were switching ball screens with him and it worked until we stopped talking," Kowalczyk said. "There was a couple possessions in the second half that we didn’t talk."
The day was doomed when Brown threw a bad pass inside to Pearson that Douglas intercepted for another run out. There is no polite way to say it, but Brown, who turned the ball over seven times and scored four points, turned in a clunker.
Brown, the reigning MAC freshman of the year, was not feeling well, his coach said.
"He just seemed tired," Kowalczyk said.
Without much assistance from their point guard, and an unspectacular effort from Pearson, who scored 13 points after establishing a career-high 30 points earlier in the week, the Rockets turned to their post players.
All three delivered a season-high in points.
Unlike the first six games, center Nathan Boothe stayed out of foul trouble. The 6-foot-9 freshman enjoyed spurts in which he could not miss from 13 feet or so and finished with 15 points.
Holliday supplied 16 points off the bench, two of which came on a second-half dunk that swelled the lead to 68-62. Power forward Matt Smith, who nailed three 3s, produced his highest point total — 20 — against a Division I team. Kowalczyk called it the best game Smith has played in his 42 with the Rockets.
CSU, which made 12 of 24 3s, was without its second leading scorer, Anton Grady (13.7 ppg), who missed his second game in a row with a knee injury. Lee got the best of Brown, scoring a game-high 22 points.
Toledo (2-5) led by nine — its largest lead of the second half — with about 10 minutes to go.
"[Mental toughness] comes with time," Smith said. "We should have it by now, but we just have to keep working on it every day."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.
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