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Published: Thursday, 3/7/2013

Rockets vying for MAC title with 70-46 win over Northern Illinois

Toledo handles Huskies, disputes conference’s stance

BY RYAN AUTULLO
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Toledo guard Rian Pearson shoots inside the paint during the first half Tuesday. Toledo guard Rian Pearson shoots inside the paint during the first half Tuesday.
BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH Enlarge

They will be playing in three days to raise a banner, insisted the coach after his team received a new lease on its title hopes.

Tod Kowalczyk does not care if the Mid-American Conference takes issue with such celebration.

After the University of Toledo walloped Northern Illinois 70-46 on senior night, Kowalczyk was shown a written statement from MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher indicating the Rockets are ineligible for the division title by extension of the postseason ban.

Kowalczyk, whose team is tied with Western Michigan with a game to go, is not backing down.

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“Jon Steinbrecher’s never told me, and I’m extremely disappointed that our league would not recognize a team that’s fought hard and played through a lot of adversity,” he said. “To be honest with you, I couldn’t care less what he says or what the league says. We’re playing for a championship on Saturday. We play the game in a fair and competitive way, with disadvantages mind you, and we’re competing for a championship regardless of what they say.”

Toledo’s most direct path to the West division title will be to win at Eastern Michigan. Western Michigan hosts Central Michigan at the same time, at noon on Saturday.

Western Michigan fell at home to Ball State, which has won six of seven, including Saturday at Toledo.

“If this doesn’t excite you, I don’t know what would,” said senior Dominique Buckley, the team’s only senior on scholarship, who scored 13 points in his last hurrah at Savage Arena. “The odds were stacked against us and it comes down to one game that will determine if we win or lose.”

A university spokesperson said Toledo would honor bonus agreements in Kowalczyk’s contract and pay the coach $14,000 if Toledo (14-13, 9-6) wins the division. The MAC cannot interfere with such payments, or with internal celebration of a title.

Steinbrecher’s statement read: “Following Mid-American Conference policy, any program declared ineligible by the NCAA for postseason is also ineligible for a conference regular season championship [overall and/or division] and conference postseason tournament.”

The MAC did not make media members aware of that policy when the media picked Toledo in the preseason to win the West.

The latest win offered little suspense. Northern Illinois missed its leading scorer, forward Abdel Nader, who missed his second straight game because of personal issues.

Toledo, which led by at least 20 for the final 15 minutes, received 16 points from Matt Smith, who added five blocked shots, the most by a Rocket since 2004. Rian Pearson scored 10 points, and senior walk-on Brendon Schwiebert buried a deep 3-pointer in the closing minutes of the swan song to his improbable Division I career.

“One of the finest people I’ve been around,” Kowalczyk said.

Kowalczyk addressed the crowd of 3,603 after the game to give thanks and to praise his seniors. He implored fans to make the trek Saturday to Eastern Michigan because “we are playing to hang a banner.”

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



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