When the University of Toledo men’s basketball team wins ugly, be it their shots were off the mark, or their energy waned, they like to say they grinded out the win.
"It’s terminology that we use often," coach Tod Kowalczyk said Saturday.
The team’s win streak, which grew to five in a 60-52 home victory over Eastern Michigan, has been a series of grinds. Few, if any, of the triumphs have been picturesque, with most resembling the latest one in which the teams combined to turn in a showing that, minus a few Rian Pearson highlights, was unsightly.
In a season that was set up to be a failure — a postseason ban and a string of early road games — the Rockets find themselves in first place of the Mid-American Conference West, tied with Western Michigan.
The Broncos won seven in a row before falling at Ball State, a result that did not alarm Kowalczyk.
"It’s a big rivalry game and they always play Western well," he said.
The day was a struggle — starting at 10 a.m. when Pearson overslept for the team breakfast — and continued into the evening.
Disrupted by a 2-3 zone that Kowalczyk lauded as one of the best he has seen, Toledo shot 33 percent in the first half.
Even the free-throw line was a bugaboo, with the nation’s second-leading team in shooting percentage missing 11 times from the stripe. At one point in the first half a fan, voicing his displeasure over a call, told an official, "You’re missing a good game!"
No, he wasn’t.
None of the 4,252 in attendance missed a masterpiece, though they watched their team win its fifth straight MAC game for the first time in seven years.
"Sometimes, to be honest with you, you grind out seasons," Kowalczyk said.
Pearson, stationed at the center of EMU’s 2-3 zone, posted 29 points and 14 rebounds in his first appearance off the bench. Had he shot better than a pedestrian 13 of 19 at the line, the MAC’s leading scorer could have shattered his previous career-high of 30 points.
"I play real well in zones," Pearson said. "I think I played to my strengths."
His finest moment came early in the second half when Pearson intercepted an EMU alley-oop pass, tipped the ball up court, dribbled behind his back to avoid one defender, and spun around another. He punctuated the sequence — which incited the loudest eruption of the night — with a floater over top 7-footer Da’Shone Riley.
Kowalczyk showered his star player in praise afterward but did say Pearson, who was benched to start the second half against Akron for attitude problems, "needs to grow up."
EMU (11-12, 4-5) has yet to win on the road in 10 chances, a glaring statistic that underscores why the West will likely come down to Western Michigan and Toledo.
The Eagles cut the deficit to 48-45 with 2 minutes, 56 seconds to go on consecutive 3-pointers, but that’s as close as they got. Toledo’s Dominique Buckley (13 points) responded with a couple of corner 3s, both coming out of a timeout.
Buckley embodied the grind-it-out mentality. A 90 percent free-throw shooter, the senior was 1 of 5 from the line but remained relevant in other ways.
"Our last couple of games have been that way," Buckley said. "We’ve had to grind these out in different ways."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.
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