MUNCIE, Ind. — As three unsung University of Toledo players filed to the team bench upon collaborating to seize momentum, they encountered a head coach who was about to break character.
Generally stoic in good times, and only slightly fiery in the not so good, Tod Kowalczyk went bananas, delivering an emphatic swing of his fist to get the celebration started.
Josh Lemons, the freshman nuisance for anyone he is assigned to guard, was the first player Kowalczyk greeted, and the left hand of Lemons might still be humming because of it. Reese Holliday, who had just put back his own missed shot to force Ball State into a timeout, absorbed Kowalczyk’s right hand across his rear end. Richard Wonnell, the last of the three, was late to the party, but Kowalczyk was happy to see him too.
"I want my players to show a lot of emotion, so I need to show emotion in those key stretches as well," Kowalczyk said. "Really happy with our bench."
A unit that has both been maligned and thin was the unlikely star of an 85-78 road win Wednesday at Worthen Arena. Toledo, which stayed one game behind leader Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference West division, captured consecutive games at Ball State for the first time in more than 30 years.
It is true that Rian Pearson, the MAC’s leading scorer, was his typical self in posting 24 points. It is also true that Matt Smith (19 points) made a career-high five 3-pointers, including two late on consecutive possessions to swell the lead to 15, and that Julius Brown (13 points, 10 assists) recorded his first career double-double. Praise bestowed to those three is justified.
It was three less heralded members of the team — Holliday, the bench’s only legitimate scorer, and two guys that average less than one point per game — that turned the game’s 10th and final tie into a nine-point lead with 8 minutes, 45 seconds remaining. Holliday accounted for seven of the points, and Lemons hit two free throws.
"Normally not a great offensive unit, but they did a great job because we were getting stops and we were getting pushes and we made some hustle plays," Kowalczyk said.
The Rockets, who will try to secure their first three-game win streak Saturday at Northern Illinois, trailed by two at halftime because, as Kowalczyk asserted, "we got our butts kicked on the glass." The MAC’s leading rebounder, Majok Majok, pulled down four of BSU’s 10 offensive boards in the half, which drew the halftime ire of Toledo’s coach.
"That was the main focal point of the speech he gave us at halftime," said Holliday, who matched his season high with 16 points.
Given that context, and the ensuing result, Kowalczyk’s joyous eruption makes sense. Holliday, after getting a steal at the other end, impersonated Majok by putting back his own missed shot. Ball State coach Billy Taylor called timeout, his team trailing by six.
"That’s a good thing when Coach K is like that," said Holliday, who added a three-point play after the timeout. "We see him giving energy and it gives us more energy."
Three missed free throws by the nation’s second-leading team in that category, coupled with some uninspired defense, allowed Ball State to cut its deficit from 15 with 3:20 left to three with 12 seconds to go on a Jauwan Scaife 3. Scaife finished with 23 points, and Majok, a junior college transfer in his first season with the program, had 16 points and 15 boards.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.