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The evening got under way with a warm ovation, as almost 4,000 people stood to honor the life of a former coach who was watching the start of a new basketball season from someplace else.
Soon the ovation gave way to screaming and shouting, as a Saturday night crowd awas greeted to a dunk exhibition in the University of Toledo’s 102-55 thrashing of Northwestern Ohio.
Bob Nichols, the iconic former Rockets coach who died suddenly in March at age 82, would have appreciated the way this one went down.
Six players scored in double figures, a promising stat for a team whose marquee guys will need to sacrifice shots to get others involved. As for defense, Coach would have nodded approvingly at the ball pressure that led to steals, and steals that led to dunks. Lots and lots of dunks.
Rian Pearson threw a couple down on fast breaks, and J.D. Weatherspoon displayed why he was a runaway winner at the team’s slam dunk contest last month with two of his own. Matt Smith got involved as well.
“It’s always fun to get the crowd going,” said Weatherspoon, whose springy feet will sell tickets this year. “That’s also an energy booster for us.”
Pearson’s 19 points led the way, followed by Jonathan Williams (15), Justin Drummond (14), Julius Brown (13), Weatherspoon (12), and Zach Garber (11). Smith, who lost his starting spot to Weatherspoon, scored nine points.
Every scholarship player scored except for one. Defensive specialist Josh Lemons did not suit up and is headed for a redshirt, Kowalczyk said. The sophomore point guard, whom Kowalczyk said made the choice on his own to take the season off, knew it would be difficult to crack the rotation behind Brown and combo guards Drummond and Williams.
The decision deprives the Rockets of a player whom Kowalczyk recently called the best on-ball defender in the Mid-American Conference.
By redshirting, Lemons will put two years of separation between himself and Brown and try to improve his offensive skill.
“I think he saw fighting for minutes is going to be difficult,” said Kowalczyk, who said the decision to redshirt Lemons could be reversed.
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If the Rockets can defend like they did Saturday, the loss of Lemons will be minimal. Minus a lull midway through the first half in which they went down by six points, Toledo displayed better defensive effort than it did six days earlier in an overtime win over Division II Hillsdale.
The final line was 13 steals and 33 percent shooting for the Racers, who also turned the ball over 21 times.
Brown, who was as active as he’s been on defense, stripped the ball and passed ahead to Pearson for a dunk to go up 22-19. Pearson dunked again on the next trip down, this time after he slapped the ball free from the man he was guarding. From there Toledo’s supreme athleticism was on display in a fast-paced transition game that kept the game entertaining even after the outcome was long in doubt.
“I think the crowd enjoyed it,” Pearson said. “J.D. had a lot of good highlight dunks, and there’s more to come.”
Players wore uniforms with the letters “BN” on the neck to honor Nichols, who went 377-211 from 1965 to 1987. Kowalczyk handed a Nichols family member a game ball before the game after highlights of the coach’s career played on the video board. Many of Nichols’ former players stood on the court — which is named after the coach.
“Obviously he won a lot, and I’m not trying to discredit that, but that’s irrelevant to me,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s the respect that his former players have for him that shows me his true character, what kind of man he was.”