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Monday, July 28, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 3/2/2014

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Improbable finish saves UT’s season

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

We hadn’t seen these Toledo Rockets for awhile.

The paint-slashing, board-crashing Rockets.

The rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ Rockets, confident from anywhere on the court at any point in time.

The defensive-minded Rockets, never great overall, but stout in spurts, especially when forced to press.

And we didn’t see them for the longest stretch Saturday night. And then we did. Amazing.

UT was down by 12 points to Western Michigan with a tick or two more than three minutes to play.

What happened thereafter is hard to explain, especially considering Toledo’s men had scuffled some and were probably lucky to be 5-3 in February. It was March, and nothing seemed to have changed.

Then everything changed.

UT got the game to overtime, then flew to a 96-85 win before the largest crowd at Savage Arena in six years.

For the last eight minutes, the joint was deafening.

If not for the last eight minutes, the Mid-American Conference West race was as good as lost, and nobody would have given the Rockets much of a chance in the upcoming MAC tournament.

With three minutes left in regulation, everything about them in this game, in the division set, and in the conference match was toast.

Then they became the toast of the town.

The attendance was a near-sellout of 6,912, the largest since the opener of the 2008-09 season when a throng showed up not so much to watch basketball but to see for the first time the renovated Savage.

This time, with three minutes left, the Rockets renovated themselves and a season that was slipping away.

“To be honest, personally I would have been devastated if we’d lost tonight because of the crowd,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “The community deserved more than we gave them early. I’d have felt awful if it had ended that way.”

It didn’t, in part, because of the crowd, said point guard Juice Brown.

“Late in the second half, we fed off them,” he said.

But there was more to it than that.

Early on, the Rockets played terrible defense. If we had to isolate one matchup, it would have been WMU’s David Brown vs. Rian Pearson. Brown was 4 of 6 from the arc, and the Broncos were 8 of 12 on 3-pointers while building a 45-33 halftime lead. Brown was getting not only good looks but good, wide-open looks and had 18 points. Pearson had one point and was 0 for 6 from the field.

“Rian didn’t cover Brown. He didn’t play well, and our bench was awful,” Kowalczyk said.

Brown finished 4 for 15 in treys. The Broncos were 8 of 23 in the final box. That’s an individual and team 0-fer during the final 25 minutes, including overtime.

You think Pearson got any better defensively?

It allowed the Rockets to make two runs. Nathan Boothe spurred the first with three baskets in less than two minutes as UT pulled within 67-62.

But Connor Tava got a hustle basket for a three-point play, Brown made all three free throws after a shooting foul, and big man Shayne Whittington hit a jumper. Western was back up by 12 with 3:18 to play and the clock ticking like a season-plunging bomb.

“I don’t know if I felt we’d dodged their bullet,” said WMU coach Steve Hawkins. “I felt like we’d had control, were losing it a little, and then regained control. Yeah, we felt pretty good about it, but it was short-lived.”

UT’s press, coupled with some foul issues that Hawkins said affected Western’s press offense, turned the tide. Everybody contributed at both ends, although Justin Drummond — who finished with 28 points, eight rebounds, and four assists — was spectacular.

In overtime, J.D. Weatherspoon gave UT a two-point lead on a spin move and then, after a WMU turnover, the man who did nothing in the first half at either end, Pearson, buried a 3-pointer. Later, he took a pass ahead of Western’s press and drove for an uncontested dunk that brought down the house and gave the Rockets a 92-83 lead.

A game that seemed all but over eight minutes earlier was officially over after that basket.

No one could have seen this coming.

And we can only imagine where the Rockets may go from here.

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



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