The University of Toledo’s Rockets had been flying high to a 10-0 record, shooting the lights out and lighting up scoreboards.
On Saturday, they flew about as low as they can go.
And now UT is 11-0.
“We had to stick together and find a way to grind it out,” point guard Juice Brown said after a 71-67 matinee squeaker against Cleveland State at Savage Arena.
Brown made just one shot all night, but dished off 10 assists. Justin Drummond also made one field goal and missed a free throw that gave the visitors a late chance, but then he stole it away on pure hustle.
Toledo shot just 32 percent in the second half, but seven different Rockets recorded offensive rebounds, headed by a tremendous effort by J.D. Weatherspoon.
So, the wins just keep on coming. If 10-0 was special, 11-0 is remarkable under these circumstances.
“It was a nice win because we didn’t play very well offensively for the first time all year,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “We just have to stay hungry and keep them humble.”
Is that a worry?
“Worry may not be the right word, but it’s a point of emphasis,” TK said. “We have to believe in ourselves, but not believe the hype. Look, these guys are getting a lot of recognition in the community; and now some national recognition, too, and rightfully so. They’re doing something that hasn’t happened here in 47 years. They have earned it.”
The last time a UT men’s team was 11-0 was when the 1966-67 edition opened with 14 straight wins. If this team matches that team there will be some serious national notice because win No. 13 would be against Kansas, just around the corner on Dec. 30.
The Rockets weren’t ready for Kansas on Saturday, although they made you wonder a little while racing to leads of 16-2 and 18-4. From there on, though, the nets got tight and it was a struggle.
And that, perhaps, was the measure of this Toledo team.
The university is on Christmas break, so the student attendance was negligible. It seemed as if a chilly, rainy day prevented some regular ticket holders from attending. But there was a pretty decent walk-up crowd and more than 4,200, many of them helping fill the upper deck, showed up to see, perhaps, if this was all for real.
What they saw was how a good team wins on a bad day.
The Rockets did it with tenacity on defense and on the boards. They did it with aggression and a never-say-die approach. The shots may not have been falling, but UT never stopped trying.
That willingness to mix it up near the basket helped to add on to a statistic that is truly one-sided. The Rockets have made 60 more free throws (253) than their opponents have even attempted (193). UT cashed in with 22 made free throws, close to its average per game that was tied for fourth highest in the nation.
Toledo finished with a 45-34 edge on the boards and outscored the Vikings 24-5 on second-chance baskets. Weatherspoon had eight rebounds (five on offense) to go with 18 points and three blocked shots. He and Nathan Boothe, who also had eight rebounds, owned the paint and combined for 11 of UT’s 23 field goals.
“Rebounding is what won the game,” Weatherspoon said.
Yes, rebounding and grit, and the little things. Like Drummond in the final seconds as he never gave up on a play and ran down Cleveland State’s leading scorer, Trey Lewis, from behind for the steal that iced the victory.
“A lot of times, it’s not the shots you make, it’s the plays you stop,” said Vikings’ coach Gary Waters, whose team is expected to be a title contender in the Horizon League.
Give Kowalczyk a nod, too, for calling two crucial time outs as the Rockets struggled against a full-court press late in the game. One came an instant before a 10-second call and the other prevented a five-second inbounds violation. Both avoided turnovers that might have swung the outcome.
Instead, the outcome was the same for the 11th time in as many tries this season.
And there is the realization that if that was a bad day then this could be a very good team, indeed.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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