DETROIT — Trailing by 18 points, it was obvious something had to change, or the University of Toledo basketball team would have to answer for an ugly defeat.
So coach Tod Kowalczyk substituted four of his players, a decision that provided the impetus for a remarkable comeback to preserve an undefeated season.
Three freshmen and two veteran newcomers injected the initial surge into the final 15 minutes of an 80-78 win against host Detroit, stunning a crowd of 2,000-plus people in the second day of the 2K Sports Classic.
The Rockets (5-0) led just twice — once at 4-2, and again after their final possession when guard Julius Brown converted a three-point play with 4.7 seconds on the clock. Brown dribbled to the right shoulder, pump faked, and drew contact from a leaping Jarod Williams as Brown released the game winner.
“I knew he was going to go for the ball fake because there wasn’t a lot of time on the clock,” said Brown, whose tip-back on the previous possession amid a forest of taller players tied the game at 77.
Toledo concludes the three-day tournament today with a 1:30 p.m. tip-off against Florida Atlantic. The Owls dropped their first two games to Detroit and Stony Brook.
Detroit (3-3), which made just one field goal during the final nine minutes, squandered a second-half lead that grew to 19 shortly before Kowalczyk’s near wholesale change. Toledo’s attacking press defense contributed to the Titans’ demise, with guards Justin Drummond and Jonathan Williams forcing turnovers in the open court for late baskets.
“The locker room is as down as any I’ve ever seen,” Detroit coach Ray McCallum said.
Kowalczyk was pleased with little beyond the outcome. His team did not defend in the first half, surrendering four 3-pointers to bench player Anton Wilson to fall behind 46-34. Brown, the team leader, was “awful” in the first half, said his coach, with zero points and four turnovers. Players bickered and pointed fingers.
“Sometimes you win games you don’t deserve to win, but that’s OK,” Kowalczyk said. “We never apologize for those.”
These teams will play again Dec. 4 when Detroit comes to Savage Arena.
Kowalczyk insists he wasn’t trying to punish four veterans — Brown, Rian Pearson, Nathan Boothe, and Matt Smith — when pulled with 13 minutes, 55 seconds remaining. They needed a breather, the coach said, and the result was a breath of new energy new talent on the roster.
Freshmen Jordan Lauf and Zach Garber headed to the scorer’s table with first-year transfers J.D. Weatherspoon and Justin Drummond. Another freshman, Jonathan Williams, stayed on the court.
It’s laughable to think Kowalczyk could have made such sweeping change in past seasons when he was handcuffed by short benches lacking the talent available now.
“We’ve got answers, we’ve got answers,” Kowalczyk said.
Weatherspoon, the athletic import from Ohio State, threw down a pair of dunks, the second coming on an inbound pass from Drummond beneath the basket. He then dunked again, cutting the deficit to 14 with 11 minutes left.
Lauf contributed a 3-pointer followed by a jumper to go down 11.
Soon it was time for the old regime to take over. Boothe nailed a jumper to make it 71-64 with 4:35 left. Brown hit a 3 with three minutes left, tightening the gap to six.
“He couldn’t have played worse,” in the first half, Kowalczyk said of his point guard. “I told him, ‘I love you, I believe in you, and I know you’re going to make plays down the stretch.’ ”
Pearson had 16 points and six rebounds. Weatherspoon scored 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Boothe just missed a double-double, collecting nine points and a career-high 10 boards. Brown had 10 points and five assists.
Detroit scored just once in the final nine minutes, on a Juwan Howard, Jr., jumper with 4:23 to go. Howard scored 23 points, finishing in double figures in his third straight game. He missed a corner 3 that would have won the game at the buzzer.
“We knew all we had to do is stay together, keep fighting, and we were going to pull out this win tonight,” Brown said.