Toledo survived yet another close call in MAC play this afternoon, beating Ball State at The Nest in Muncie, Ind., 80-72. Rian Pearson, emerging from a mid-season funk, led all scorers with 20 points, and added six rebounds and four steals. Zavier Turner led the Cardinals with 19, while Majok Majok posted a double-double with 17 points and 11 rebounds.
Freshman forward Franko House got Ball State rolling with a pair of free throws and later a 3-pointer that tied the game at 6-6. When Julius (Juice) Brown picked up his second foul with 16:02 remaining in the first half, it seemed that Ball State would have an early opportunity to make hay. But the balanced attack of the Rockets struck quickly, as Matt Smith and Jonathan Williams made 3-pointers off the bench for Toledo.
Ball State struggled from the field early but managed to draw fouls and get to the line. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they shot 7-14 from the stripe in the first half. After a pair of missed foul shots, Toledo scored quickly in transition with a Justin Drummond layup and extended their lead to 20-9.
The teams traded buckets, with Toledo taking advantage of transition opportunities en route to a 33-18 lead with 8:46 remaining in the half. With multiple bench players in the game, the Rockets unexpectedly unraveled. Poor shot selection and what seemed like dozens of turnovers (officially only five or six in this stretch) led to a scoring drought of seven minutes for Toledo.
Meanwhile, Ball State roared back, sparked by a huge one-handed Chris Bond throw-down over Smith. In MAC play, Bond has been the Cardinals' best offensive weapon, averaging 13.6 points per game. Bond will soon cross the 1000 point barrier in career scoring for the Cardinals, and was a clear spark in the first half, consistently challenging inside on the offensive end.
BSU poured it on during the Rockets' struggles, as Mark Alstork and then Turner heated up and hit the open threes that had been there for the taking the whole first half. A Quinten Payne dunk on a breakaway completed a 17-0 Ball State run and gave the Cards the lead at 35-33. Pearson tied the game for the 35-35 halftime score.
The teams traded hoops at the outset of the second half, and both point guards (Turner and Brown) picked up their third personal fouls within the first two minutes. Toledo gained some separation when Pearson stripped Alstork and streaked to the other end for a layup, giving the Rockets a 45-40 lead. Pearson had appeared to press at times in the first half with poor shot selections, but as the game tightened, the Rockets looked more and more to get the ball into his hands. Pearson recently climbed into Toledo's all-time top 10 in scoring despite only playing in his third season for Toledo.
The game got a bit chippy as the second half progressed and the officials whistles sounded frequently. Jordan Lauf hit a pair of foul shots to extend the Rockets lead to 53-42 after a long game stretch which lacked flow for either team. With over 10 minutes to play in the game, both teams were in the bonus.
Berry canned a three for the Cardinals to narrow the gap to 59-51, his first made field goal of the game. But J.D. Weatherspoon, who had largely been a non-factor for the first 30 game minutes, answered with an old-fashioned 3-point play off an awkward 10-foot jumper. Majok hit a pair of foul shots to close the gap again, then Quinten Payne hit his second triple of the game to make the score 62-56. Payne has had a quiet freshman year, but with the ongoing struggles of Berry and Alstork at the off guard position, one wonders if Payne will get more opportunities. Berry and Alstork combined for 3-15 from the field, with one assist, six turnovers, and eight personal fouls.
After Drummond missed a pair of free throws, Berry launched a three immediately after the ball crossed mid-court, and hit to cut the lead to three. Majok followed with a pair of foul shots to cut the lead to one. Majok had struggled to contribute in the first half, when Toledo routinely double-teamed him immediately upon catching the ball. In the second half, as Nathan Boothe got in progressive foul trouble, Majok took advantage of matchups against other players - especially freshman Zach Garber - and asserted himself at both ends. Both Majok and Boothe played several minutes with four fouls, but Majok's aggressiveness paid off as Boothe fouled out with about seven minutes to play.
Another huge moment occurred when Brown picked up his 4th foul on a dubious call with 4:33 to play, then had a technical foul slapped on him to result in the disqualification. It was not immediately apparent what earned Brown the T, as his objection to the personal call wasn't especially vigorous. Presumably what the complaint lacked in quantity it made up for in quality.
Turner canned both free throws to cut the lead to 68-67, and the two teams headed to the last four minutes without Brown or Boothe available to the Rockets.
A Pearson floater from eight feet over Majok's outstretched arms gave Toledo a 73-69 lead. Ball State turned the ball over on the possessions before and after that, and Drummond connected on one of two foul shots - making him only four of ten from the stripe for the game to that point - to give Toledo a five point lead.
Turner was fouled in the lane on the next possession and hit both free throws, tying his career high with 19 and bringing the Cardinals within three. On the ensuing possession and following a timeout from coach Tod Kowalczyk, Pearson drilled a turnaround fade-away 15-footer to extend the lead to five. Ball State turned it over in the lane on the next possession, and the game was essentially over.
Although Weatherspoon posted 11 rebounds to look good on stat sheet review, he was functionally a complete non-factor in this game. This came as a surprise, given the way he had taken over in the middle in the Akron game, another team with a potent front-court. This meant that Toledo's main inside threat was Boothe, who looked good when able to stay on the floor. Boothe is a key on the offensive end for the Rockets, partly because he is a threat both inside and outside, partly because he is a capable offensive rebounder, and partly because the Rockets' backcourt was more effective preventing transition when Boothe was attacking.
For Ball State, this game was another in a series of frustrating losses. With the continuing struggles of their shooting guards and the absence of much of a bench contribution, a concern for coach Whitford's team will be keeping their legs fresh as the season wears on. They were fortunate today that the pace of the game slowed in the second half with all the fouls - several players, most notably including Majok, were sucking serious wind in the second half.
Toledo squares off against Ohio on Wednesday in a rematch of last week's overtime thriller. On paper it's perhaps Toledo's toughest remaining game, and one of its last chances to impress against a quality opponent in trying to earn consideration for a possible at-large post-season berth. Ball State stays home for its first game of the year against West division rival Eastern Michigan, and follows that with a home game next weekend against Bowling Green. Both those teams feature league-leading defenses that will challenge Ball State's outside shooters to contribute and generate offense.
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