It wasn't pretty, but the No. 2 Toledo Rockets survived to make it to the 2014 MAC Tournament Championship game Saturday night after beating No. 6 Eastern Michigan 59-44. After struggling to bust EMU's zone for the first 33 minutes of action, the Rockets were able to pull away thanks to a late outburst of scoring from Justin Drummond, who finished with 11 points, eight of which he scored down the stretch.
For the bulk of the evening UT scraped by, just barely holding out ahead of the Eagles, mostly thanks to Rian Pearson, who crashed the gaps in the 2-3 zone and was really the only source of offense.
EMU's patented defense caught the Rockets offense by the heels to start the game. At the under 12 media timeout the Rockets were shooting a miserable 25 percent from the floor, struggling to get inside on the Eagles. But by midway through the first half Toledo finally took the lead on a Matt Smith 3 to go up 18-15. Smith scored again 30 seconds later to give him five points on the night; he didn't score again.
Despite holding the lead Toledo was unable to pull away though as the Eagles clamped down on anyone not named Pearson. Meanwhile, Glenn Bryant attacked Toledo's weak interior defense, scoring six points down the stretch of the first half and putting the Rockets on their heels. With some momentum on their side the eagles rattled off a nice little run down the stretch capping it off with a Darell Combs 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer to cut Toledo's lead to 32-28.
Bryant finished with a team-high 11 points and six blocks on the night.
At halftime Pearson had 15, while Justine Drummond, J. D. Weatherspoon and Julius Brown, three All-MAC players each averaging over 10 points a contest heading into Friday's semifinal match up, had combined for just six points. Brown, an All-MAC first-teamer had just one assist and one steal on his stat sheet at this point, illuminating how constipated the Rockets offense had become.
Brown, the MAC's leader in assists per game and runner up in the MAC Player of the Year award race, finished the game with just three points and one assist on 1-of-6 from the field in arguably the worst performance of his career.
EMU carried the momentum of Combs' buzzer-beating 3 into the second half, cracking down hard on Pearson, who scored just three points in the second half. Seven minutes in EMU trailed 38-36 and was holding the Rockets to 15 percent from the field for the half.
The problem though, despite Bryant swatting shots left and right, was that EMU's offense was performing equally as bad. In fact EMU finished the night shooting just 32 percent from the field and Toledo flashed a rare show of solid defense.
Midway through the half Nathan Boothe and Drummond started nailing down jumpers and from there it was pretty much all Toledo. Boothe finished with 13 points and Drummond added another 11 and 10 rebounds on the night.
UT outscored EMU 20-8 down the stretch run as EMUs zone defense was left scrambling to close the gaps. With the lead growing, the Eagles fell into sloppy offensive sets, forcing shots and failing to attack the lane. In the end the Eagles run in the MAC Tournament came to an end after three wins in four days.
With the win Toledo, widely regarded the best team in the conference, advances to the MAC Tournament Championship for the first time since 2006; the year before a point-shaving scandal rocked the program to its core. UT will face co-MAC regular season champion, and the top seed in the tournament, Western Michigan Saturday night on ESPN2 in the first All-West MAC Championship game since 1996 (Toledo lost to EMU in the final that year).