Don't look now, but the University of Toledo men's basketball team has a legitimate win streak for the first time in nearly two years.
The Rockets (2-9) notched their second straight comeback victory Friday night, 75-63, over Florida Gulf Coast in front of 3,941 at Savage Arena after getting their first win of the season last weekend in overtime over Valparaiso.
The last time UT won two in a row against Division I competition was during the 2008-09 season, when the Rockets snagged back-to-back victories over Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan during the rookie year of then-coach Gene Cross.
"This team is starting to understand who we are [and] how we have to play," UT first-year coach Tod Kowalczyk said. "The first month [of the season], we didn't understand that."
UT freshman point guard J.T. Thomas came off the bench to score a season-high 16 points, and sophomore guard Malcolm Griffin knocked down all four of his 3-point attempts to tie senior forward Anthony Wright with 12 points. Freshman guard Reese Holliday dropped in 11 points and grabbed a season-high 13 rebounds, while freshman forward Delino Dear added 10 points.
Anthony Banks poured in 23 points for the Eagles (2-7), who lost 83-55 at Ohio State on Wednesday and faded in the second half Friday night.
"We had to go through a learning process," Thomas said, "and now everybody's starting to buy in more and more and more. We're starting to put all the pieces together, and now everybody's staying hungry for wins."
The Rockets actually fell behind by 14 points in the first half, but once again rallied after the break to seize another important victory for a program that is still in its infancy.
Wright's 3-pointer from the right arc tied the game at 49 with 13:26 to play, capping a 13-2 run that was ignited by Dear's bucket and freshman walk-on Zack Leahy's rainbow triple from well beyond the left arc that hit nothing but nylon as the shot clock expired.
Redshirt freshman forward Hayden Humes gave Toledo its first lead since early in the first half when he knocked down both free throw attempts after Florida Gulf Coast forward Sherwood Brown was hit with a technical foul for hanging on the rim at the 8:55 mark.
UT's Delino Dear puts up a shot against the defense of Florida Gulf Coast's Charlie Lytle, right, during the first half at Savage Arena.
The Rockets used an 11-2 run to pull away for good and led 66-58 following Griffin's 3-pointer from the left arc with 3:14 remaining.
"I think I was just feeling it tonight," said Griffin, who wasn't known for his shooting ability as a freshman but retooled his game in the offseason to add a 3-point shot to his arsenal.
"It's a new weapon for me," Griffin added. "I'm starting to get more confidence with it. I changed my form up and how to be ready to shoot. [Assistant coaches Angres Thorpe and Ryan Pedon] helped me a lot with my shooting this offseason."
Kowalczyk and his coaching staff have had to mold a roster with just seven scholarship players, including two holdovers from last year's 4-28 squad, and four walk-ons.
UT took several early lumps during a brutal stretch of games against Illinois, Temple, and Cincinnati and suffered through the worst start to a season in school history. But the Rockets appeared to have turned a corner, and Kowalczyk is seeing a different level of focus and commitment from his players.
"Nothing helps listening more than having success," he said. "Now with us [having] experienced two games where we played well in stretches, not entirely, but in stretches, I'd like to think we can build upon this."
With an upcoming home game against NAIA Division II opponent Indiana-Northwest (1-12) on Tuesday, the Rockets have a great chance to add to their win streak.
Said Griffin: "We just have to keep playing how we're playing, not take our opponent lightly on Tuesday, and go home over break with a three-game winning streak."
NOTES: Humes went 4-for-4 at the charity stripe and has now made 15 straight free throws. … The Rockets held Florida Gulf Coast to a 33 percent shooting effort, the lowest by any opponent this season. … UT nailed a season-high 11 3-pointers on 21 attempts (52 percent). The last time the Rockets hit that many triples was last season in a loss at Cincinnati.
Contact Zach Silka at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6084.
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