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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2014 - Updated: 1 year ago

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Rockets add to frustrating MAC drought

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

CLEVELAND — The drought continues, 34 years and counting without a Mid-American Conference tournament championship and, barring something unforeseen from the NCAA tournament committee, nothing there either for the Toledo Rockets.

Senior Rian Pearson said Saturday night that he “definitely” thought UT belonged in the NCAA field as an at-large selection. Coach Tod Kowalczyk lamented that the Rockets had gained little mention of late in the national discussion and that at 27-6 they “absolutely” belonged in the picture.

Truthfully, that hasn’t been the case since UT lost at Northern Illinois in late February. The Rockets had won four straight since, but nothing the selection committee folks saw on their TV sets Saturday night, were they watching, likely changed any opinions.

Toledo lost in the MAC title game 98-77 to top-seeded Western Michigan.

The teams shared the MAC West and overall regular-season league championships. The only thing they shared Saturday night was the same court at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Broncos shot 68 percent (19 of 28) in the second half and 55.7 percent from the floor for the game. Toledo was 28 of 70 (.400) and managed only five offensive rebounds in the first 32 minutes of play. At the end, the rebounding totals were 46-27 in Western’s favor.

There isn’t a whole lot to analyze and, probably, the less said the better. It wasn’t pretty.

Western will get the MAC’s automatic berth in the NCAA for the first time since 2004. The Broncos have had some decent teams in the last few years, and fifth-year senior guard David Brown, who torched UT for 32 points, said Saturday’s win ended “five frustrating years” for him trying to get to the big dance.

Toledo fans might argue — or laugh out loud — that such frustration is a mere blip on the radar screen of time.

It is 34 years and counting for the Rockets.

Jay Lehman, wrapping up his 15th season as part of UT’s radio crew, was the point guard on that 1979-80 Rocket team that won the first-ever MAC tournament and then played in the NCAA tournament for the second straight season.

Coach Bob Nichols’ program was riding high, and it would have been impossible at that time to predict the long drought that has ensued.

“My memory isn’t good enough to cover the whole time, but in the 15 years I’ve been doing radio, I would say this is the most talented, deepest team.”

And, added Lehman, it is a team that Nichols, who died just about a year ago, would have appreciated.

“I think he would like the things they do on offense,” Lehman said. “He’d like that they’re unselfish and move the ball around. They’re good at fundamentals. And they’ve worked hard at the defensive end and have gotten better and that would be a key to coach Nichols, getting better.”

Until Saturday night, that is.

Defense has been an on-again, off-again thing for these Rockets all season, although there had been flickers of improvement over the last month.

But it was off again on this night as Western Michigan had its way in the lanes, both passing and driving. The latter was just too easy, too often for the Broncos and they attacked from all angles. It was the fifth time this season UT surrendered 90-plus points, but the only other time it happened against a conference opponent was in an overtime game.

Pearson had a rough night defending Brown, who netted five treys. Nathan Boothe did his best even with foul problems, but 6-11 Shayne Whittington is just too long for him without some help. He rarely got any. Connar Tava, a 6-6 forward, was a mismatch against every Rocket who tried to keep tabs on his cuts to the basket on isolation plays.

WMU coach Steve Hawkins is a boxing fan and his players say he is always talking about “body punch, body punch, body punch, knockout punch.”

One of those body punches came early in the second half when Tava faked J.D. Weatherspoon into the air, drew a lot of contact, and threw up a one-handed, wild heave that somehow found the basket. The three-point play put the Broncos up 53-44, and despite a lot of time left on the clock, there was a lot wrong with the Rockets’ body language and energy from that point.

You might say the knockout punch was everything that followed as UT played, and lost, in the MAC title game for just the fourth time since that 1979-80 championship.

The Rockets will play some more ball, most likely in the NIT, and there’s no question their season has re-energized the program and its fan base.

“It didn’t happen tonight, but there is hope now; heck, it’s more than hope,” Lehman said. “The program is in fantastic shape. There are good kids, it’s a good staff, there are solid recruits coming in. I have a feeling there will be a lot more championship games coming.”

Could be, but for now, 34 years and counting.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.


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