Toledo beats Eastern Michigan 59-44 in MAC semis

CLEVELAND (AP) They’ve already set a school record for wins, and revived a dormant program.

The Toledo Rockets aren’t done, though.

Not now. Not so close to making history.

Rian Pearson scored 18 points and Justin Drummond hit a big 3-pointer down the stretch as Toledo moved into the Mid-American Conference tournament championship with a 59-44 win over Eastern Michigan on Friday night.

The second-seeded Rockets (27-5) will play top-seed Western Michigan in Saturday night’s title game for the MAC’s automatic spot in the NCAA field. A win would put Toledo back in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 1980.

”We made big plays against, let’s face it, the best defense in our league,” said Toledo coach Ted Kowalczyk. ”That zone is good.”

The Rockets were able to do just enough against Eastern Michigan’s swarming, 2-3 zone and secured their first trip to the MAC title game since 2006.

Nathan Boothe added 13 points and Drummond had 11 and 10 rebounds.

With the Rockets leading 51-42, Drummond nailed his 3 from the right corner with 3:51 left. Toledo’s bench and fans erupted, knowing they were just minutes away from finalizing a date with Western Michigan, which overcame an 18-point deficit in the second half to knock out Akron in the other semifinal.

Toledo and Western Michigan split their two meetings during the regular season. The Rockets lost 87-76 on Jan. 8 at WMU, but rebounded to win the matchup in overtime at home 96-85 on March 1.

”For the MAC, these have been the two best teams all year,” Kowalczyk said. ”I’m looking forward to it.”

Glenn Bryant scored 11 for sixth-seeded Eastern Michigan (21-14), which won three games this week just to make the semifinals. The Eagles shot only 32 percent and scored 16 points – on 23 percent shooting- in the second half.

Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy acknowledged playing four games in five nights took a toll on his players.

”Our guys fought all week,” Murphy said. ”I’m not making any fatigue excuses, but I thought late in the second half it kicked in on us.”

Eastern Michigan’s Darell Combs hit a 3-pointer as the horn sounded at halftime, pulling the Eagles within 32-28 and sending them bouncing from the floor and toward their locker room.

Combs hit another 3 five minutes into the second half, and EMU, which had rallied to beat Buffalo on Thursday night, appeared to have Toledo in trouble. But the Eagles were far too inconsistent on offense and struggled to get off a decent shot, let alone score. Their point total was a season-low.

Still, the Eagles were within 45-40 when Toledo’s Julius Brown hit a 3-pointer to make it 48-40. Drummond’s big shot came just a few moments later and put EMU away for good.

”We all got into a rhythm at the end of the game when it mattered,” Drummond said. ”My shot gave us a little cushion and just got everyone going.”

Directly to the championship.