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Tuesday, October 21, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 1/19/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Rockets land first punch against Akron

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

AKRON — Toledo’s Rockets got the message. And then they delivered one, adding the lone ingredient perhaps missing from their resume.

The finesse Rockets, the lightning-quick Rockets, the dead-eye shooting Rockets, the slick ball-handling Rockets … those Rockets turned into bullies and bested the longtime beasts of the MAC East on Saturday.

“We talked about playing physically,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “We told our guys that Akron would bring the fight to us and we had to fight back.”

That’s not actually what happened at JAR Arena. Toledo brought the fight. Akron, surprisingly, didn’t want anything to do with it.

If any torch was passed Saturday — and it wasn’t, because it was only one game and no trophies were awarded — it was the one that dispelled the belief that UT, now 15-2, may not be physically tough enough to beat a championship-caliber team on the road. Final score: Toledo 75, Akron 61.

“What they did is they took the first punch to the bully, and we didn't punch back as well as we should have,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “It looked like to me they wanted the game worse than us. It looked like they had a little something to prove to me.”

Well, yes.

Intentionally or otherwise, Dambrot lobbed a challenge like a live grenade earlier in the week with published comments that suggested the Zips’ best shot was in “mauling” the Rockets.

“Maul us, bruise us, that kind of stuff,” UT center Nathan Boothe said. “That story was posted in our locker room. We got it. We had to prove we could be the aggressors, that we could take the fight to them. J.D. [Weatherspoon] and I stepped on the court ready to prove we could do it and that we would be there the whole game.”

Were they ever! That duo combined for 30 points and 21 rebounds. Boothe was merely dominant. Weatherspoon, the power forward, was off the charts with 20 points and 14 boards. As good as the Spoon had been during Toledo’s first 16 games, this was his best.

Less than five minutes in, UT had a 6-1 rebounding edge and four of them were on the offensive end. Dambrot marched into the huddle and blew a gasket, but nothing much changed.

By the time UT opened an 18-point lead at 60-42 with 9:30 left, the Rockets had the same number of offensive rebounds as Akron had defensive boards. Toledo finished with 16 caroms at the offensive end and turned half of them into follow-up baskets. In the paint, UT outscored the Zips 42-26.

“I don’t like it when a team tries to out-tough me,” Spoon said. “I have some athletic ability and strength I can use. Our mantra was to hit them first. I think we did a good job.”

And, after establishing who the tough guy was, UT had to “step on some throats when the game was there to win,” said Boothe.

Message sent.

“What caught me a little bit is [that] I was surprised by their toughness level,” Akron’s Dambrot said of the Rockets. “They showed championship-quality toughness.”

Message received.

Weatherspoon knows how long Akron, which has played in seven straight MAC tournament title games, has been the league bully.

“It’s a great team, and coach Dambrot has a great program," Spoon said. "I’m sure we’ll see them again. They’re always there. But, hey, maybe it’s time for a new king to be crowned.”

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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