Toledo's Reese Holliday tries to drive past Illinois-Chicago's Josh Crittle.
Facing a gap of three weeks between games, coach Tod Kowalczyk conducted an abbreviated mini camp with his University of Toledo men’s basketball team.
When the daily grind finally stopped, the players headed home for Christmas — some not in the jolliest of spirits.
“When they went home for Christmas they were sick and tired of practice, and they were sick and tired of me,” Kowalczyk said. “But I do think we got better during that time. We changed some things for the better.”
No one could contest that point after Saturday when the Rockets thumped a decent Illinois-Chicago team 74-55 in just their second home game of the season.
This by far registers as Toledo’s biggest win of the year and doubles perhaps as its most polished performance. The Rockets, who opened the game on a 15-3 run, led for the final 39 minutes and established numerous season-highs, both collectively and individually.
Kowalczyk repeatedly tried to unearth positives that came from his team’s NCAA sanctions. By losing one day of practice each week, he anticipates his players will be fresh amid the drudgery of Mid-American Conference play. By losing home games this year, his team will enjoy a workable schedule next year.
And by facing a 21-day lull, he was able to address in detail weaknesses that afflicted his team early in the year. Kowalczyk scheduled an exhibition game this month against Siena Heights to be a trial run, declining to even game plan against the opponent in order to see how his team might respond to the element of surprise.
The break also gave the team time to incorporate twists to their motion offense and allowed them to hone both components of their feeble assist-to-turnover ratio. On Saturday it was a dazzling 18:7 — a season high in assists and a season low in turnovers.
“Everyone was confident coming into the game, and I think we had a great break,” said Rian Pearson, who posted his first double-double of the year with 24 points and 10 rebounds, and tied his career-high with five assists. “We needed a break back at home to get our heads reset to come play.”
Pearson’s traveling companion to and from the Kansas City area, sixth man Reese Holliday, also seemed rejuvenated by the break.
The only bench player to attempt a field goal, Holliday knocked down a career-high four 3-pointers and finished with 16 points. Matt Smith had nine points and 10 rebounds and freshman Nathan Boothe recorded a season-high four blocked shots to go along with 10 points and seven boards.
Pearson called this win, which came over a team that had won nine games and destroyed Eastern Michigan by 26 points, “a must win.”
Perhaps that is an overstatement coming with more than two months left to go in the season, but there’s no denying the importance of the win following a series of frustrating losses to quality opponents. The first three teams Toledo beat — Samford, Texas A&M Corpus Christi, and Eastern Illinois — had a combined seven wins heading into the day.
“Today I think we put it together from beginning to end,” Holliday said.
The Flames, who have dropped three in a row since starting 9-1, received 11 points from former Rocket Hayden Humes. Humes, who made just five 3-pointers all of his freshman season with Toledo, drained three in the first half. Daniel Barnes led UIC with 18 points.
On Monday, Toledo will conclude its nonconference schedule at home against another team from Chicago — Chicago State. The Cougars dropped to 3-12 Saturday in a 43-point loss to Ohio State.
“Don’t look at their record,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s deceiving.”
Chicago State has played 10 away games and just four at home.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160, or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.