CLEVELAND — The clock read 8:35 p.m. Saturday when University of Toledo’s NCAA tournament hopes dissolved in a 98-77 defeat to Western Michigan.
Anyone paying attention the past two months knows the truth, that Toledo, for all intents and purposes, lost the championship game 24 hours earlier when Western Michigan erased an 18-point semifinal deficit to stun Akron in overtime.
Western Michigan, constructed wonderfully to expose Toledo’s deficiencies, made a mockery for the third time of the Mid-American Conference’s poorest defense.
The Broncos shot a sizzling 68 percent and totaled 56 points in the second half to leave in their dust the team which they shared the MAC regular season and West division titles. Toledo, aiming to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1980, must likely wait a year to snap a drought of 34 years.
“It’s very embarrassing,” point guard Julius Brown said. “We didn’t come out with a good defensive effort, and it cost us.”
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One day after he bristled over a question about the state of his defense, insisting all was well after a solid effort against Eastern Michigan, coach Tod Kowalczyk offered no spin. His guys once again couldn’t stick with David Brown, who hit five times from outside the arc on his way to 16 points in both halves (32 total). Brown, the MAC scoring champion, averaged 24.3 points against the Rockets this year.
“I thought [Rian] Pearson all year long has been tremendous defensively,” Kowalczyk said of Brown’s primary defender. “For whatever reason, he has not been good against Western Michigan at all.”
Shayne Whittington, the towering 6-foot-11 center, stayed one step ahead of his counterpart, Nathan Boothe, finishing with 20 points and 13 boards. His season average against UT: 18 and 12. To start the second half it seemed as though WMU coach Steve Hawkins’ playbook was reduced to one call — dump the ball inside to the fifth-year senior.
“In every game we had a hard time guarding him,” Kowalczyk said.
Ditto for Connar Tava, who overpowered UT’s power forwards for two buckets to open the second half. Tava, who was 9 of 9 in the first meeting, didn’t miss this time either, making five shots for 13 points.
The rebound margin was equally perplexing, with the Broncos controlling the glass 46 to 27.
Two months since the Broncos shredded Toledo’s defense in an 11-point win in the league opener, there still are no answers.
Full-court pressure enabled the Rockets to pull off an unthinkable 12-point comeback in the final three minutes of regulation in an overtime win over the Broncos two weeks ago. The strategy, employed around the 8-minute mark Saturday, had little effect this time. An 11-point WMU advantage never dipped below nine, with Brown and point guard Austin Richie engineering a press-breaker for lob dunks.
“I think it’s all on us,” Pearson said. “Lack of communication and not being in a stance defensively.”
Pearson led UT (27-6) with 24 points, including 16 in the first half to bring the deficit to 42-40. Brown chipped in with 22 points.
WMU, which has won 12 of 13 games, returns to the NCAA tournament for the first time since Hawkins’ first season in 2004. Toledo, with a RPI of 40 and a strength of schedule of 188, will likely be left out and instead accept a bid to the second-tier National Invitation Tournament. Kowalczyk made a plea anyway.
“For us not to be mentioned the last two weeks to me is a slap in all of the MAC’s face,” he said.
With 43 seconds left, Hawkins substituted for his bench warmers. Kowalczyk did the same. The shellacking continued with the Broncos opting for more buckets rather than to let the clock run. Kowalczyk glared at Hawkins, his palms turned to the sky demanding an explanation.
There was no stopping the Broncos. Not Saturday. Not ever this season.