DEKALB, Ill. — With a chance to set a program record, University of Toledo instead spun a broken record.
An offense once thought to have few flaws is exposing many of late, delivering pause to the Rockets’ status by some as the favorite in next month’s Mid-American Conference tournament.
For the third time in two weeks, Toledo’s offense hid in witness protection, leading to a 74-66 setback Wednesday at middling Northern Illinois.
If not for an inspiring effort by Rian Pearson (27 points, nine rebounds), this tricky road tilt in advance of Saturday’s showdown with Western Michigan might not have been competitive.
Pearson’s compatriots in the starting line up mostly had bad nights, be it Nathan Boothe, who fouled out without scoring, or Justin Drummond, who fouled out with one rebound. Point guard Julius Brown couldn’t get into the paint and shot 5 of 14 — 1 of 6 from outside.
Toledo, freshly wounded from listless showings against Eastern Michigan and Bowling Green, hit on just 41 percent from the field and 3 of 21 on 3-pointers.
“Certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort on our part,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “To be honest, we had some guys not play very well. That’s disappointing this time of year. Guys have to step up and play.”
At stake was a share of the school record 24 wins set in 1939-40. That team, coached by Harold Anderson in Toledo’s pre-Mid-American Conference era, finished 24-6 without playing in a postseason tournament.
The Rockets (23-5, 11-4) will try again Saturday at home against Western Michigan, which escaped Ball State in overtime to break a tie with Toledo atop the West division. Should it close the regular season with wins over Western Michigan, Central Michigan, and Eastern Michigan, Toledo will attain the No. 1 seed to the MAC tournament.
To do that, the Rockets would be wise to start scoring like they did in December and January. A couple of Pearson 3-pointers, and a Pearson jumper shortly after, cut a nine-point deficit to one with about six minutes to go. Boothe missed a free throw with a chance to tie, and NIU scored the next seven points.
Pearson missed a 3, leading to a Darrell Bowie run out for a 61-53 NIU edge.
“I just tried to come out with energy and get my teammates to follow me,” said Pearson, who was 10 of 15 from the field.
This late-season loss to a sub-.500 team — NIU improved to 13-14 (7-8) — diminishes Toledo’s power to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament should the Rockets stumble in Cleveland.
Kowalczyk, whose team was outrebounded 40 to 29, dismissed a question about his players exhibiting signs of fatigue.
“I’d like to think we’re just the opposite,” he said.
“We’re excited to play. We had some great practices. We just didn’t play well.”
As has too often been the case, foul trouble by Boothe undermined Toledo’s low post efforts. Unable to slow NIU big man Jordan Threloff with Zach Garber, Kowalczyk ordered an unconventional line up midway through the first half and replaced Garber with 6-foot-7 Matt Smith.
Threloff had eight first half points on 3 of 5 shooting. Averaging about nine points, he finished with 13 to go with nine rebounds. He made 7 of 8 free throws, and NIU, a 67 percent team at the line, made 25 of 30.
Boothe played just eight minutes in the half before incurring his second foul.
He picked up fouls three and four by the midway point of the second half and fouled out with three minutes to go. He needs to stay on the court Saturday to give UT a chance against WMU’s All-MAC center Shayne Whittington. The 6-foot-10 Whittington burned UT for 10 points and 10 rebounds in the first meeting — a nine-point WMU win — and is capable of even bigger numbers.
“Nathan Boothe had a bad game. He just did,” Kowalczyk said. “When he gets zero points, we’re going to struggle. Tonight he had an awful game.”