Two University of Toledo basketball teams were looking to take big strides on Sunday at Savage Arena.
Only one could manage a medium-sized step.
At least UT’s men got a win, moving within one victory of equaling a school record for the same, with an 85-74 decision over Ball State.
Whether it was the dominant win they badly needed, coming against a 4-20 team without one of its best players, well …
The Toledo women, meanwhile, were victimized by wretched shooting in a 60-59 matinee loss to Western Michigan that snapped a four-game winning streak that the Rockets were hoping to expand in advance of the Mid-American Conference postseason tournament.
The men had struggled over the past week, dropping a 21-point decision at Eastern Michigan and coughing up a 19-point, second-half lead at Bowling Green before coming back to prevail at the buzzer.
On Sunday evening, Ball State was within three points with less than four minutes to play.
The Rockets, to their credit, did pull away from there courtesy of 20 points and seven assists from Juice Brown and the re-emergence of both Nathan Boothe and Justin Drummond at the offensive end.
They’d been absent, either figuratively or literally, for a couple games and so had UT’s scoring prowess.
That wasn’t the problem Sunday.
But, as Boothe said, “We didn’t have much energy on defense. We come out and get a jump on a team, then we kind of let up a little. We have to find ways to step on their throats.”
Brown agreed, saying the Rockets didn’t get enough of the “50-50 balls” that are a matter of hustle and desire. He also pointed out that Ball State had way too many offensive rebounds; 17, in fact, which led to 19 second-chance points.
On nights the Rockets combine reasonable efforts at both ends with all the intangibles they can be awfully good. Scary good. As good, in fact, as their 23-4 record might indicate.
UT fans might welcome seeing a little of that with tournament time closing in.
Coach Tod Kowalczyk feels the defense has gotten “consistently better,” although Ball State roughed it up a bit, and that offensive execution was back in the lineup Sunday. He also was pleased that Brown and Drummond combined for 12 assists and just two turnovers.
“This time of year, it’s about finding ways to win,” TK said. “We did that today.”
Tricia Cullop, his UT counterpart, could not say the same. There was no lack of effort, but her women were undermined by a dismal shooting effort — .319 overall from the field, .100 on 3-pointers, .591 from the free throw line — that produced a seventh loss of the season at home. Previous Rocket teams lost just 10 times at Savage during Cullop’s first five seasons.
The losses may be something new; the off-the-mark shooting is not. The Rockets have been playing over, or plowed under by, inaccuracy since the start of the season.
They entered Sunday’s game with a sub-40 percent overall shooting percentage and a .268 mark from 3-point range. Neither stat was improved upon.
You’d think a team with such a history might not be quite so eager to heave up 20 treys as they did against Western Michigan.
The only two “makes” were by Ana Capotosto, but the last of her nine tries from beyond the arc, on a clean look after Andola Dortch cut off a drive to the hoop and kicked out a pass, bounced off iron as the backboard lights flashed on.
UT’s two starting guards, Dortch and Janelle Reed-Lewis, were a combined 7-of-31 overall and 0-for-7 in treys.
Cullop said she was disappointed, not surprised, by her team’s shooting woes. It wasn’t her first rodeo.
“I can’t fault them,” he said. “They’re always in the gym shooting, they’re trying. We’ll just keep working.”
When asked if, 25 games into the season, the problem was still solvable, Cullop got a steely look in her eyes, repeated the “keep working” mantra and added: “It’s the only choice we have. I’d rather that than to have us lie down and die.”
Not with February leaning toward the madness of March.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.