CLEVELAND — The beauty of basketball in March is there are not varying degrees of pretty.
Through all the magic and madness and hairpin turns of momentum, the process doesn’t mean a thing.
Toledo guard Marreon Jackson defends as Miami's Logan McLane gets set to receive a pass during Thursday's MAC Quarterfinal game at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland.
BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge
And so it did not matter for Toledo on Thursday night that the best 3-point shooting team in the Mid-American Conference displayed more suspect aim than a villain in an old-shoot-em up Western. Or that league player of the year Tre’Shaun Fletcher turned in another out-of-character clunker. Or that an 11-point lead in the final minutes gave way to a white-knuckle shot at the buzzer, two seasons, two dreams, in the balance.
All that mattered was the result.
Toledo 71, Miami 69.
Delirium on one side, despair on the other.
When the fading 3-point attempt of Nike Sibande caromed off the rim and the buzzer rang in this MAC tournament quarterfinal, Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk shot his fists skyward, turned to the two sections of roaring Rockets fans at Quicken Loans Arena, and returned their cheers.
Think this means a little something?
“It means a lot,” Kowalczyk said. “Every win, I don’t care how you get it, just get it, whatever it takes.”
All Toledo needs to do now is, well, do it all over again. Showtime awaits.
Peel past the drama, and the second-seeded Rockets (22-10) did as expected Thursday. They confirmed they are a good team.
It’s time to prove they can be great.
For as much as we know about these Rockets through 32 games, we also know little, this weekend remaining the proving ground that will define their season.
Can Toledo rewrite its tortured March past and crash the big dance for the first time since 1980? Great question, and one the regular season did little to answer.
UT is 0-5 against the three MAC teams that finished with a winning league record — including Buffalo and Eastern Michigan, the two teams square in its path — and 14-0 against the rest of the conference. Overall, the Rockets are 2-9 against top-150 RPI teams, 20-1 against everyone else, with their lone bad defeat coming at Cornell the day after Thanksgiving.
That’s a big concern, sure, suggesting they — for all the usual reasons — have a ceiling, but hardly a disqualifying one. When the Rockets play smart, they wield the firepower to beat anyone.
I asked Kowalczyk afterward about Toledo’s opportunity to elevate its season from good to historic.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “One thing about this team is they’ve been really, really consistent all year long. We’ve had two bad games against Ball State. I’ll make excuses for them. We had some injuries and we had some bad calls. We moved past them. Those are the only two games we played poorly. Those are the only two games. Other than that, we’ve competed in every single game. Even our last loss against Eastern Michigan, we had some key plays down the stretch that didn’t go our way. Our guys didn’t hang their heads. They just responded and kept playing.”
So it was Thursday, too.
Toledo looked like a rocket out of space early, tight and out of sorts. Heck, some guys did all night. The long-bombing Rockets — a team many figured would die by the deep ball in tournament play — hit 4 of 23 3-point attempts while their do-everything engine stalled. Fletcher was 5-of-17 from the field, missing open shots and forcing others.
And yet Toledo still won. Think about that. If you had told us these things before the game, we’d have said Toledo lost by double digits. Instead, it withstood the March grind, receiving big-time contributions from all over, most notably star sidekick Jaelan Sanford (21 points) and reserve center Luke Knapke (16 points, seven rebounds).
Sometimes, you have to win ugly. All that matters is the Rockets lived to see another beautiful March day.
For Toledo, it’s time to be great.
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