gave me motivation to take a little road trip to Bowling Green, Ohio. I had never before been to Bowling Green, and this visit introduced me to the Bowling Green-Toledo rivalry, with the two teams separated by a 25-mile stretch of Interstate 75 in Northwestern Ohio. I also had a chance to see BG's new arena, the Stroh Center.
MY FIRST IMPRESSION OF THE STROH CENTER WAS WORTHY OF AN #ALLCAPSSUMMARY. I WENT INTO THE ONLY APPARENT ENTRANCE AND FOUND THAT THERE WAS BUT A SINGLE TICKET WINDOW, STAFFED BY A SINGLE BG STUDENT. SINCE I ARRIVED FORTY MINUTES BEFORE TIP-OFF, I GOT INTO A LINE BEHIND SIX PEOPLE. THOSE IN THE FRONT OF THE LINE MUST HAVE HAD A COMPLICATED REQUEST, AS THE LINE DIDN'T MOVE FOR ABOUT EIGHT MINUTES. BY THE TIME I GOT MY TICKET, THERE WAS A LINE OF ABOUT FORTY PEOPLE BEHIND ME. I CAN'T IMAGINE THAT THEY WERE ALL SEATED BY THE TIME THE GAME BEGAN. BOWLING GREEN - ADD ANOTHER TICKET WINDOW!
As a student of the game, I always like to see how schools honor their past achievements. About a half century ago, Bowling Green was among the elite in the college game. Led by the tandem of Nate Thurmond and Howard "Butch" Komives, the Falcons made back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 1962 and 1963. Their lone tournament victory came in Thurmond's senior season of '63, when they beat Notre Dame 77-72. The next season, Komives' senior season, he led the nation in scoring. Banners along the north side of the arena recognize their four NCAA tournament appearances, and five small signs on a white wall on the west side of the building recognize five honored former stars. In addition to Thurmond and Komives, tribute is paid to Antonio Daniels (class of '97), Jimmy Darrow (class of '60), and BG's first All-American Wyndol Gray (class of '46).
As an ardent follower of the Horizon League, this game also gave me a chance to see a familiar face in Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk. Kowalczyk left Green Bay after the 2009-10 season to take over a Toledo team overhauled by controversy amidst allegations of point shaving. That still impacts the Rockets, as their current roster has no seniors, and just two juniors. They do have some talented transfers, including sophomores Rian Pearson and Matt Smith, who followed their coach from Green Bay, and the aforementioned juniors Dominique Buckley (Iowa State) and Curtis Dennis (New Mexico).
By contrast, Bowling Green's top five players consist of three seniors and two juniors. Coach Louis Orr, a former star player at Syracuse, features a balanced attack led by 6-7 junior A'uston ("The Apostrophe") Calhoun. From what little I'd seen of these teams on TV, and from the things that I've read about them (due in large part to #800GP
fellow correspondent William Fischer), I had expected a close battle starring Pearson for Toledo and Calhoun for BG.
For those of you who aren't MAC-savvy, the conference is split into two six-team divisions. Although these two schools are relative neighbors, and despite the fact that Bowling Green is slightly west of Toledo, Bowling Green is part of the MAC East, and Toledo is in the MAC West. The conference schedule is divided into thirds; each team plays a round-robin against others in its own division in the first third, followed by a round-robin against teams in the other division, and concluding with another round-robin against its own division. This game marked the end of the out-of-division round-robin, and the dominance of the East has been staggering. After the day's action, the East won 30 of the 36 games against the West, with league leaders Akron, Buffalo, and Kent State all sweeping the six West Division squads. The top four teams in the league standings earn byes into the MAC's tournament quarterfinals, and all four byes may go to East Division teams. A win here would keep Bowling Green in strong contention for that privilege.
The game began with a surge for the home team, as Calhoun had a couple of early baskets. When diminutive junior guard Jordon Crawford drove uncontested through the middle of the lane for an easy bucket out of a halfcourt set, the Falcons held a 12-5 lead, and a disgusted Kowalczyk spent an early timeout.
After a four-minute period of fairly even play, Toledo caught fire. Freshman guard Julius Brown hit back-to-back 3-pointers, and followed that up soon after with an old-fashioned three point play to cap a 12-0 run for the Rockets. Calhoun and Pearson traded baskets for the much of the rest of the half, and Toledo held a 29-22 advantage at the break.
Given that my seat was in among the rest of the walk-up crowd, I had the opportunity to sit within a mixture of fans of both teams. The Toledo fans in this section spent much of halftime crowing at their orange-clad brethren; this rivalry has been fairly one-sided in recent years, and the Rocket backers were savoring the turn of the tide.
Once the second half began, it was more Toledo. A three-pointer from Buckley and a pull-up jumper from Pearson stretched the lead to 39-26, which prompted a game-changing strategic move from Coach Orr. An aggressive ¾ court press from the Falcons halted the Toledo momentum by forcing turnovers and creating easy buckets for BG. When the Falcons weren't scoring, senior forward Scott Thomas was in position for offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Thomas and Calhoun combined for eight of nine points in a 9-2 Falcon run. When Julius Brown responded with a three-pointer to stretch the lead back to nine, Thomas responded with a three of his own, followed by another three from BG senior guard Dee Brown, and a dunk by classmate Torian Oglesby - suddenly, the Toledo lead was down to one.
From here, momentum swung back and forth. Dennis led Toledo to a 52-47 lead with a three-pointer, a spinning lay-up and an assist to set up Smith for an open three. Dee Brown countered with a three of his own off a Calhoun offensive rebound; after an Oglesby steal, a Thomas missed lay-up was followed by a thunderous dunk by Calhoun, which created an eruption among the Falcon fans and tied the game at 52.
Pearson followed by throwing the ball away to Thomas, and then fouled him on his drive to the basket. Thomas missed both free throws. At this point, Bowling Green was a horrible 1-for-11 at the foul line, yet they still were in a tie game with momentum in their favor.
The teams continued in a tight struggle until just over two minutes remained. Thomas came off a screen to find a wide-open lane. He converted the lay-up in spite of a hard foul by Smith, and then converted the free throw. Crawford then intercepted a pass from Pearson, and took it in for an uncontested lay-up to extend the lead to five.
Toledo then moved into desperation mode, and Dennis knocked down a couple of three-pointers to keep them alive, but the Falcons scored just enough to keep a margin. Thomas got fouled with three seconds remaining. With a three-point lead, he had a chance to ice the game, but fittingly, missed both attempts. Smith collected the rebound, but bobbled the ball and never had a chance to try a desperation heave.
In our game, seniors very often play a prominent role in close games, and there was no exception found here. For Bowling Green, Dee Brown and Thomas made key plays to ensure their team's victory. For the senior-less Rockets, there were no such leaders to make clutch plays. With Dennis, Julius Brown, and Pearson (especially if he can cut down on turnovers), Toledo has a bright future ahead. For now though, supremacy in the Battle of I-75 remains with Bowling Green.
For the rest of the season, I'll return my focus to the Horizon League. I bid a fond farewell to the Stroh Center, and may well return here next year. MAYBE THEN I CAN AVOID A LONG TICKET LINE!