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Published: Sunday, 2/24/2013

Toledo cruises to nonconference victory, returns focus to MAC West

Toledo's Nathan Boothe and McNeese's Desharick Guidry reach for a rebound at Savage Arena. Toledo's Nathan Boothe and McNeese's Desharick Guidry reach for a rebound at Savage Arena.

It was akin to a garage band opening for the headliner. A 10-minute short preceding a blockbuster film. A marching band overshadowed by a massive float.

Toledo's Rian Pearson soars for two points during the game against McNeese State. Pearson had a game-high 21 points. Toledo's Rian Pearson soars for two points during the game against McNeese State. Pearson had a game-high 21 points.

This negligible win in a nonconference BracketBusters affair was, as University of Toledo men’s basketball coach Tod Kowalczyk put it, “a meaningless game.” The next one conversely will be of profound significance, perhaps as big a game as the Rockets have played in six years.

There is little reason to deeply inspect Saturday’s 79-66 home triumph over McNeese State, given the result has zero bearing on a tight division race or on tournament implications for the postseason-banned Rockets. This was nothing more than a tune-up for Wednesday’s anticipated face-off with Western Michigan.

“We’re focused on trying to win a [Mid-American Conference] West championship,” said Rian Pearson, who posted his third double- double in four games. “I just think we’re real focused and locked in.”

Kowalczyk centered practices in the early part of last week not on the Cowboys, whom the Rockets whipped for the second year in a row, but on Western Michigan. That match up, to be contested at Savage Arena between co-leaders of the division, has been on everyone’s mind since a month ago when the Rockets were engulfed in Kalamazoo by a robust Broncos team that pushed, shoved, and pulled their way to a 23-point beat down.

“We have to come out and throw the first punch,” said forward Matt Smith, who was one of five Rockets to score in double figures Saturday. “When we do that, we have to keep on throwing them until the game is over.”

WMU and UT, both 8-4 in conference, enjoy a three-game cushion over Eastern Michigan with four games to go. The Rockets (12-11 overall) will play three more times at home, and WMU will host twice.

“We didn’t play well in that game,” Kowalczyk said of Jan. 16, his team’s worst showing of the season. “Happens to every team in the country. ... Sometimes it’s not your day and it wasn’t our day. We’re a different team, and they’re a different team. It will be a fun game, fun atmosphere.”

Kowalczyk’s squad should enter the game a confident bunch, having won seven of eight. Their latest win began by them playing sluggishly and ended with even more lethargy. Otherwise, it was good enough. Pearson overcame a 1 of 9 shooting start to post 21 points and 11 rebounds to bolster his candidacy for MAC player of the year honors.

“It’s hard to not think about it,” admitted Pearson, the league’s leading scorer, whose well-timed two-handed dunk in the second half off of a teammate’s missed shot elicited approval from the crowd of 4,393.

PHOTO GALLERY: Rockets roll in BracketBuster win over McNeese State

Smith — who will need to play better Wednesday than he did the first time against WMU when he failed to get a rebound — nailed three 3s, matching teammate Reese Holliday with 13 points. Guards Julius Brown (11 assists) and Dominique Buckley contributed 10 points a piece, and a rash of point-blank misses prevented Nathan Boothe (nine points) from becoming the sixth Rocket to score in double figures.

McNeese State (11-14), which lost at Savage Arena last year in the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament, got 18 points from Jeremie Mitchell.

WMU, which beat Pacific on Saturday, has been hit or miss in recent weeks, dropping road games at Ball State and Bowling Green, and winning a cliffhanger at home over a bad Northern Illinois team. Toledo is hotter and will playing at home, but the easiness with which WMU won the initial meeting cannot be ignored.

“We have our mind set on one goal, and that’s to be MAC West champions,” Smith said. “We couldn’t have put ourselves in a better position.”

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.

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