UT finishes tied for best in West with 78-67 win over Eastern Michigan

Rockets celebrate despite MAC not recognizing division crown


YPSILANTI, Mich. — A bizarre performance to close the season serves an appropriate snapshot to a year that deviated greatly from the norm.

Opponents as a rule do not come into Eastern Michigan’s Convocation Center and set nets ablaze, but that is what the University of Toledo men’s basketball team did Saturday, making a mockery of the Eagles’ vaunted 2-3 zone to secure a pseudo division title in a 78-67 win.

That the Rockets produced 47 points in the second half against a team that allows slightly more than that in entire games defies logic. Little has made sense in a campaign once destined for disaster — be it because of the postseason ban, the arduous schedule, or untimely transfers — but ending in celebration.

Depending if the person speaking works in downtown Cleveland, or inside of Toledo’s Savage Arena, the Rockets may or may not be champions of the Mid-American Conference West. The MAC says no, citing the league’s policy banning teams barred from the postseason of formally winning regular-season championships. What is not debatable is Toledo (15-13, 10-6 MAC) played 16 league games and won just as many of them as division champion Western Michigan.

A banner will be raised at Savage for the first time since 2006-07, and the players will receive rings commemorating a season that seemed doomed last spring when the NCAA dropped the hammer on the program for unsatisfactory scores on Academic Progress Rate.

"They can’t take that away from us," said Toledo’s only scholarship senior, Dominique Buckley. "There’s nothing they can do. They can’t take it away from us."

Buckley could not have scripted a better send off, matching his career-high of 21 points on five 3-pointers. Whenever his team needed a basket, whether it was to rally back from a 12-point deficit in the first half, or to build a second-half lead that grew to as many as 17, Buckley never failed. Within four minutes after halftime, Toledo’s only captain drained his first, second, and third 3s, giving the Rockets a lead they never rescinded. He piled on a little later with 3s on consecutive possessions, extending the gap to 68-55.

"I think this was one of his best offensive games," said Julius Brown, who punctuated his stellar MAC season with 19 points and 12 assists. "He was very hot, so I was looking for him every time I came off the ball screen."

Toledo’s 78 points are the most EMU has allowed in MAC play in two years under coach Rob Murphy. The Eagles, who won the West last season, entered the day allowing a league-low 55.4 points in conference games.

Rian Pearson posted 18 points, which were not enough to stave off Central Michigan’s Kyle Randall, who had 33 points in a loss at Western Michigan to clinch the MAC scoring title. Randall, a senior in his first season in the MAC, averaged 18.3 points. Pearson, last year’s scoring champion, finished with 17.9.

Matt Smith poured in 10 of his 12 points after halftime for the Rockets, whose title hopes took a major hit two weeks ago when they lost consecutive home games to Western Michigan and Ball State.

"I think it’s good we went through a little adversity this year," Brown said. "That just made us stronger and better as a team. MAC West champions, we’re going to celebrate tonight."

An announced crowd of 892 was split evenly between supporters of both teams, the result perhaps of coach Tod Kowalczyk’s plead for support Tuesday following a senior night win over Northern Illinois. Fans next year will see, for the first time under Kowalczyk, a complete roster. Supplementing the core of Pearson, Brown, and Smith, will be two transfers, two redshirts, and three acclaimed freshmen, forming what will be one of the most talented and deep teams in the MAC.

"Three years ago we walked into a situation that was low," Kowalczyk said. "We had to rebuild it. We did it with some guys that had strong character."

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