MUNCIE, Ind. — Needing a basket late to avoid a loss that would have sent the Mid-American Conference into a frenzy, Tod Kowalczyk called timeout.
His point guard, a crunch time maestro, had fouled out. So had his center.
University of Toledo’s coach would need neither to drive the dagger into Ball State’s upset hopes Saturday at Worthen Arena.
Kowalczyk still had Rian Pearson, and Pearson, despite a string of recent subpar offerings, had plenty to contribute to his team’s 20th win. The fifth-year senior drained a tricky 12-foot baseline jumper with 37 seconds left for a five-point lead. He poked the ball free at the other end to punctuate an 80-73 victory that should be celebrated if for no other reason than the adversity the Rockets overcame to accelerate to the finish line.
OK, so, the adversity was largely self-induced. Their yucky cocktail of inattentive defense and lackadaisical passing let the four-win Cardinals erase a 15-point deficit to tie the game at halftime. And the Rockets (20-3, 8-2) deserve no sympathy for losing point guard Julius Brown with under five minutes to go. In a spurt that robbed Toledo of its top playmaker, Brown picked up his fourth foul under the basket on a block attempt. He then taunted BSU’s Zavier Turner to incur a technical foul, serving as Brown’s fifth personal.
Turner then made four ensuing free throws to close to within one point.
Kowalczyk said, “I don’t condone it. We’ll address it with him, and he won’t do it again.”
This was not a warm, valiant effort by any means, but Toledo will take it as it inches closer to securing a top seed in the MAC tournament. For Pearson, Toledo’s third straight win at Worthen Arena was a reminder of his importance on a team whose many playmakers sometimes overshadow his All-MAC talents.
He took charge at the defensive end when no one else would, pressuring BSU’s ball handlers and contributing to the Cardinals’ 21 turnovers with four steals. At the other end, he turned in his finest effort of the MAC season, mixing jumpers with cuts to the rim for 20 points, his highest total since scoring 22 against Coppin State in late December.
If he hit a wall, which he admitted to in poor showings at Miami and Ohio, Pearson lowered his shoulder and broke it down Saturday in the final prelude to Wednesday’s anticipated home clash with Ohio. He added six rebounds — his most in four games.
“There’s a reason why I wanted him to come up here with me,” Kowalczyk said, referring to the table they shared at the postgame news conference. “In my mind, he won us this game. His energy, his toughness, his leadership was unbelievable tonight in a game where we faced a lot of adversity. He kept the guys together. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him.”
Kowalczyk said he installed the play he called for Pearson, in which Pearson posted on the low block, two days earlier and would have went to it regardless if Brown was available.
Brown fouled out for the first time in his career, finishing with his fewest minutes — 25 — since his freshman year. He managed 18 points but offered little resistance to the 5-foot-7 freshman Turner, who had 19 for BSU (4-17, 1-9).
Center Nathan Boothe picked up his fifth with 5:20 left. BSU responded by pounding Majok Majok (17 points and 11 rebounds) at freshman Zach Garber with mixed results. Majok traveled in the paint with 3:24 to go and his team down two, a call he and his coach James Whitford disputed afterward.
Kowalczyk downplayed talk of Toledo’s first 20-win season since 2005-06, saying “we’re not about 20 wins, we’re about competing for championships.” In sight is the school record of 24 wins, which Toledo can tie, as early as Feb. 23 when these teams play again at Savage Arena.
With Brown and other starters resting on the bench in the first half, the Cardinals put together a 17-0 run, erasing a 15-point deficit, and briefly seizing the lead. A Pearson layup ended a scoreless drought of more than eight minutes and sent the teams into the break tied at 35.
“He’s our senior leader,” said Justin Drummond, who had 12 points. “He came up big today."