KENT, Ohio — Well, that was an encouraging start. A tad surprising too.
It was beginning to be difficult to assess the University of Toledo men’s basketball team heading into conference play, given the contrasting signs that pointed to different conclusions.
Bewilderment only intensified Wednesday when the Rockets pocketed an unexpected 70-58 win at Kent State.
This triumph, coming against a perennial bully in the Mid-American Conference, registers perhaps as the most notable in the three seasons under Tod Kowalczyk. His best player was better than Kent’s, his point guard emerged from a slump, and for once his squad did not erode in a tight road contest.
"For us to come out here and get a win the first game of the MAC season was huge," guard Dominique Buckley said.
In an outcome that was sure to raise eyebrows around the league, the Rockets never trailed in the second half and squashed Kent’s unbelievable streak of 31 straight wins over opponents from the West division. UT victories bookend that run, as the Rockets beat the Golden Flashes in 2007-08.
Basketball can be a funny game, and Toledo is starting to become a funny team. Ten days after the Rockets (5-7) were humbled at home by a weak Chicago State team, they went into a gymnasium that houses a perennial 20-win team and came away with a double-digit victory. The designs were laid the two previous days at practice, sessions Kowalczyk deemed the best of the season.
"It all started with one guy," Kowalczyk said. "Juice [Brown] was really good the last two days. Teams usually follow the lead of their point guard. He was really good tonight. It carried over."
Brown, who had has not shot well of late, recorded 10 assists and paired them with seven points and six rebounds. His dish to Nathan Boothe for a three-point play with 3 minutes, 31 seconds left was on the mark and expanded the lead to 60-54.
Rian Pearson got the upper hand in a battle pitting the MAC’s top scorers, posting 27 points, grabbing nine rebounds, and outworking everyone on the floor. Pearson was assigned to his counterpart Chris Evans for much of the game and did a fair job, although Evans scored 20 points — four more than his season average — in 38 minutes.
Evans, a bench player a year ago when he torched Toledo for 23 points, received the ultimate compliment from the Rockets bench. Every time he touched the ball, they screamed "Fire!" an acknowledgment that this would not be a good time to lose focus. That phrase has been attached to other good players, including Miami’s Julian Mavunga a year ago.
"Coach was talking to me that it was a very important defensive game for me," said Pearson, who had two steals. "I was focused and ready to defend."
Buckley, who drained three 3-pointers, finished with 15 points. Boothe had nine points as the Rockets bench took just three shots and scored two points.
The game started to mirror ones from earlier in this season at Cleveland State and Detroit, when the Rockets withered in the second half of a tight road game. Kent (9-6) put together an 11-2 run, cutting the deficit to 55-52 with under five minutes to play and energizing a sleepy crowd of 2,178.
Pearson responded with a baseline jumper, and Brown found Boothe a little later for the three-point play. From there, the game turned into a free-throw contest, something Toledo will rarely lose. The Rockets, who rank first in the MAC and 12th in the nation, knocked down 16 of 18 from the stripe.
"When you win on the road against a team like Kent State and a program like Kent State, it’s a nice step. There’s no question about that," Kowalczyk said.
"But I’d like to think in the future there will be a lot bigger wins to come."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.