UT's Matt Smith, left, and Josh Lemons battle Western Michigan's Darius Paul in Wednesday night's game at Savage Arena. Paul led all scorers with 28 points.
After dealing with anxieties that arose from preparing for the first big game of their careers, the University of Toledo men’s basketball team will encounter another new challenge.
Responding from a deflating defeat.
The Rockets blinked first in the two-team standoff atop the West division of the Mid-American Conference, withering away late Wednesday in a 65-62 loss to Western Michigan.
A home crowd of nearly 4,000, taking in the program’s most meaningful test in six years, saw the Rockets do three things uncommon of a team that has been as hot the past month as about anyone in the league.
Rian Pearson, an outside contender for MAC player of the year, turned the ball over six times and was held to zero field goals in the first half. He otherwise finished with a decent line — 14 points, seven rebounds — but his team needed more than a decent effort from their star forward in this rematch of a 23-point defeat from six weeks ago.
"Pearson played really frustrated," coach Tod Kowalczyk said. "Really frustrated."
Point No. 2: Toledo, which of a couple weeks ago ranked second in the nation at the free-throw line, was 10 of 16. It was the team’s lowest mark since MAC play began. Give them three more makes — how about Julius Brown missing late, and the trustworthy Matt Smith coming up empty on a second-half trip — and there is the three points that make up the deficit.
Finally, the Rockets faltered in winning time — the period of a see-saw affair when every possession starts to be magnified — something they had started to master. There was the 8-0 WMU run, which turned a four-point lead with 4 minutes, 19 seconds to go into a four-point deficit within two minutes. Brown, with a chance at the line to tie, walked back several steps to collect his composure, and then misfired.
"Juice missed a huge one," Kowalczyk said.
Moments later he missed from long distance trying to tie the game. The game ended when Dominique Buckley threw up a difficult heave, that, had it gone in, would have made Nathan Boothe’s buzzer-beater from a few weeks back seem like a layup.
Brown, who knocked down one of his four 3s with 1:14 left to cut the deficit to 62-61, bemoaned the many missteps that cost the Rockets (13-12, 8-5) pole position in the division.
Added Reese Holliday, who also hit four 3s to fuel a 16-point effort: "Probably one of the most painful losses of my basketball career, if not the most. This game was pretty much for the MAC West championship. It’s not even so much they beat us, but we beat ourselves."
Holliday might get some resistance on that last point from WMU’s Darius Paul. The soon-to-be MAC freshman of the year dominated Holliday and Smith, pouring in a season-high 28 points to go along with 12 rebounds, seven of which were offensive.
The former high school teammate of Toledo’s Boothe, Paul’s impact was essential considering WMU’s top scorer Shayne Whittington went scoreless. Whittington, who was bully-like in the first meeting, sat the final 15 minutes of the first half because of foul trouble.
"For a freshman he’s just real physical," Holliday said of Paul. "He’s skilled. He knocked down some jumpers tonight we didn’t think he could make."
The Broncos (18-9, 9-4), who had lost 12 of 14 at Savage Arena, by no means sewed up the division. On Saturday, when Toledo hosts a Ball State team it handled in Muncie, Ind., WMU will be locked into a tricky match up at Eastern Michigan.
"I’m curious and excited to see how we respond," Kowalczyk said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.