CLEVELAND - The clock didn't wait until midnight to strike down the University of Toledo's title bid in the Mid-American Conference men's basketball tournament last night.
The MAC's Cinderella story during the second half of the season - the Rockets started 1-6 in league play, but took a 10-game winning streak against conference opponents into last night's championship game against Kent State - was obviously derailed by fatigue and a frustrating shooting performance, but also by an opponent that was just as quick, just as deep, just as relentless at the defensive end, and built a large enough lead to withstand another frantic bid by the Rockets.
Kent, appearing in the title game for the fifth time in six years, twice saw a once-substantial lead sliced to three points in the late going, but won 71-66 and earned the MAC's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
The Rockets fell to 20-11, but last night's performance made it no less amazing that a team that could do little more than trip over its own feet during an early stretch of the season came within one win of learning to dance.
Instead, UT will hope its late-season run was enough to capture the attention of the NIT selection committee.
Last night, though, the Rockets hit a wall, tried nonetheless to charge through it head first, but finally took it on the chin before a pro-Kent crowd of 10,253 at Quicken Loans Arena.
Toledo, bidding for its first league title in 26 years, became the seventh No. 7 seed to make it to the MAC final and the seventh No. 7 seed to lose. The Rockets were playing their fourth do-or-die game in six days and this time they died, but not before making it interesting.
"We got off to kind of a slow start, but I liked the way the kids kept battling," said UT coach Stan Joplin. "We didn't play our best game, but there was no quit."
Somehow, some way, the Rockets dug deep and found something in reserve down the stretch. Similar to their semifinal rally from a 13-point, second-half deficit against Akron, UT turned up the defensive heat after falling into arrears by 18 points with nine minutes to play.
With Kashif Payne driving for a three-point play and nailing a 3-point shot, with Justin Ingram selling out defensively and on the boards, and with Tino Valencia scoring on a big tip-in, the Rockets fought back. With 3:16 to play, senior Anton Currie stole a Kent inbounds pass and laid it through to pull UT within 60-57.
"We needed one more stop, one more rebound," said Joplin, "but we didn't get it."
Kent's Kevin Warzynski, named the MAC's top sixth man this season, and the tournament MVP, answered with two big baskets, one after a rebound and another on a sweeping hook shot, as the Flashes built their lead back to nine points.
UT again sliced Kent's advantage to three on consecutive 3-pointers by Ingram, Sammy Villegas and Ingram again, the last with 20 seconds to play. But it was a last gasp as the Rockets were forced to foul.
"We just had to keep fighting," Payne said. "We're not a team that gives up."
Added Ingram: "We made our run and you could see a little concern in [the Kent players'] eyes. But we turned it over and then Warzynski got that big put-back that took a lot out of us."
Warzynski, a 6-8 senior, made 8 of 9 shots en route to a game-high 21 points as the Flashes had four players finish in double figures. Ingram scored 16 and Payne 14 - but on a combined 11-of-25 shooting - to lead UT.
The Rockets stuck with the Golden Flashes (25-8) early, with a drive and a scoop shot by Ingram pulling the Rockets to within 14-13 at the 11:45 mark of the first half.
But Toledo would score just one basket, a put-back by Valencia, over the next eight minutes and 45 seconds while the Flashes, scoring four times on layups after offensive rebounds, reeled off a 16-2 run for a 30-15 lead.
"We didn't come out real aggressive," said Ingram. "We tried to take the easy way out and took too many 3-pointers."
UT got back to within 11 points by halftime, but 21 points matched their season low for a half and 8-of-28 shooting (.286), including a dismal 1-of-12 mark from 3-point range, was their worst half of the season.
"I knew we were tired," said Joplin. "We didn't have a lot of legs, we didn't score much. But we found the means to battle."
Indeed, the Rockets refused to go quietly into the night, but their second-half rally could never fully overcome that poor start. And the clock finally struck them down, midnight or not.
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.41.50436 -81.69046