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The undefeated University of Toledo basketball team probably should’ve lost 11 days ago when the Rockets did the almost unimaginable and erased a 19-point second-half deficit in an exasperating 80-78 win at Detroit.
Their coach in a motivational measure is trying to program his players into thinking they did lose.
The Rockets stunk up Calihan Hall that Nov. 23 evening, alternating bad shots on offense with porous defense only to be rescued with 4.7 seconds to go on Julius Brown’s three-point play with a twisting jump shot from the right elbow.
A similarly lackluster effort in today’s rematch with Detroit will likely have the Rockets confronting a number other than zero in the loss column.
“Coach said to prepare as if we lost the game the first time,” forward Rian Pearson said. “We’re going to start out the game with more energy on the defensive end than we did last time.”
Off to its best start in 15 seasons, Toledo looks to remain entrenched among a cluster of 21 national unbeatens following its first home game in 16 days. Tip off is set for 7 p.m. Of interest is what effect the team’s 6-0 start has on a fan base worn thin by years of mediocrity. The Nov. 18 Florida A&M game drew 3,916 fans, off a bit from last year’s 4,122 average.
The earlier Detroit game, which came as part of the of the 2K Sports Classic, illustrated the gulf between the Rockets at their championship-level peak and the Rockets when they lapse into sluggishness. For the majority of the game they operated with lethargy, lacking the explosion from a day earlier in a frenetic-paced 103-99 win over Stony Brook. It wasn’t until Kowalczyk substituted a stream of second-line players into the game with 14 minutes left that the Rockets acquired the juice needed to match the host Titans.
Kowalczyk’s team was not good defensively, though not as bad as he initially thought before watching film of the game. Detroit’s Juwan Howard, Jr., a crafty 6-foot-6 combo forward whom Kowalczyk called “the best player on the floor in that particular game,” lived in the paint and finished with 23 points. The Titans’ 51 percent shooting at halftime cooled to 45 percent by the end, a small victory for a squad whose struggles stopping dribble penetration has led to opponents shooting 47 percent.
The Rockets’ habit to direct their efforts on offense at the cost of playing sound defense, “is a dangerous game to play,” Kowalczyk ceded recently. The coach has five starters averaging double figures in points although he would like to see the five starters committed to defending every trip down the floor.
Attacking defense helped the Rockets tighten an 11-point deficit against Detroit with five-plus minutes to go. Kowalczyk ordered a full-court press resulting in three steals and a Detroit shot clock violation. The Titans made just one field goal over the final nine minutes.
“We need to come out and play with a sense of urgency and make sure we understand why we didn’t play very well and have an ability to self-evaluate,” Kowalczyk said.
Detroit (4-4) followed the crushing defeat with an equally gut-punching loss, falling in three overtimes the next day to Stony Brook. The Titans picked up a road win in their most recent game, a 65-60 victory Saturday at South Florida.
Kowalczyk does not recall another time he faced a non-conference opponent twice in less than two weeks. Toledo will encounter similar scenarios in February, facing Ohio twice within 11 days, and Bowling Green and Ball State twice within 15 days.
“This isn’t going to be a whole lot different,” Kowalczyk said.