CLEVELAND — All season, Tre’Shaun Fletcher put the Toledo basketball team on his broad shoulders.
Friday night, Marreon Jackson and his teammates returned the favor.
They put Fletcher on theirs.
After carrying their star off the court in the opening seconds, the Rockets lifted the felled Fletcher on a night that will endure forever in school lore, rallying to a 64-63 victory over Eastern Michigan in the Mid-American Conference tournament semifinals.
Do you believe in miracles?
Whether you do or not, the Rockets are one game away from dancing like it is 1980.
Twice, Toledo looked fried, first when Fletcher — its heart, soul, and league player of the year — collapsed to the court in anguish, then when third-seeded Eagles went ahead by five with 1:49 remaining.
And yet Jackson assured the madness was just beginning.
With no conscience, as if in heat-check mode on a video game, the freshman from nearby Garfield Heights — who averaged all of 7.3 points this season — let fly the biggest shots of both his 26-point night and his young life.
“He’s got a lot of Sam Cassell in him,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said, referring to the, uh, fearless former NBA star.
Both 3-pointers splashed in, the first tying the game with 45 seconds remaining, the second from three steps beyond the arc winning it. Nine seconds later, the buzzer sounded and disbelief mingled with delirium.
It did not feel like hyperbole moments later when Kowalczyk called Jackson’s back-to-back shots and the victory unsurpassed in his 16 years as a head coach.
“The team kept believing,” he said. “Sometimes in this profession, you don’t always get what you deserve, and this team deserves this, trust me. I’ve been around a lot of teams, and they deserve this.”
Friday appeared just one of those star-crossed nights. Nobody here could recall seeing a balloon popped so suddenly. At least not since Rockets superstar running back Wasean Tait wrecked his knee — and his sure-to-be record-smashing career — in the 1996 football opener.
It took all of 21 seconds for a night of such promise to turn on its head, the play as innocent as it was devastating. On their first possession of the game, the Rockets pushed the ball in transition, finding Fletcher open for a layup that put UT ahead 2-0.
It proved the two most costly points in school history. Fletcher came down and his left knee buckled, then gave out. A day earlier, he tweaked his knee late in the Rockets’ quarterfinal victory, but promptly returned and few gave the injury much attention. This time was different. Fletcher did not get up, twisting in agony.
Kowalczyk walked the length of the court, then summoned two reserves from the bench. They carried Fletcher straight to the locker room, and with him seemed to take their hopes.
If any injury is hard to watch, this one was different. Here was the one-and-done transfer from Colorado who gambled on himself, opting to sit out a season in the hopes of a big final year. He achieved just that, only to see it vanish when it mattered most. Gut-wrenching.
But the funniest thing happened.
Jackson, the freshman, huddled his teammates together.
“I told them not to worry,” he said. “Tre’Shaun’s going to be back. This can’t be his last game. We can’t let him down.”
Whether Fletcher returns remains to be seen. Kowalczyk said Fletcher has no structural damage, which means, in theory, he could return for the NCAA tournament next week.
But just the same, Jackson and company kept the dream alive. And, after a bruising, back-and-forth night that delivered an unlikely new star into Toledo lore, showtime now awaits.
Here it is: One game. One shot at history. There is no more drama in sports greater than the final of a one-bid basketball league, where every wrenching minute feels like overtime of a seventh game.
Toledo will play top-seeded Buffalo in the championship Saturday for a berth in its first NCAA tournament in 38 years.
I’m not sure I can see the Rockets beating the powerhouse Bulls without Fletcher. But then I can’t believe what I saw here Friday, either.
“Amazing,” Jackson said.
Guidelines: Please keep your comments smart and civil. Don't attack other readers personally, and keep your language decent. Comments that violate these standards, or our privacy statement or visitor's agreement, are subject to being removed and commenters are subject to being banned. To post comments, you must be a registered user on toledoblade.com. To find out more, please visit the FAQ.