The line for the men’s room at halftime spilled into the concourse area. Patrons seeking a pretzel or beer had to wait their turn. Noise volume in the arena, for many years a soft pitch resembling that of a theater production, was rock concert-like.
A jaded fan base that’s suffered through long patches of mediocre basketball has waited a long time to witness a performance like Wednesday’s when the sizzling University of Toledo offense steamrolled Detroit in a 91-75 blitzing at Savage Arena.
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This season, though still early, has passed the infancy stage with the Rockets still unbeaten at 7-0. An audience of 4,357 turned out for the first home game in more than two weeks, many of them mainstays, others curious what the fuss around town is all about.
Stiffer tests await, including a trip to juggernaut Kansas this month, but as of Wednesday Toledo could boast of being one of 19 undefeated teams in the country, and one of three from a non-power conference.
“If we key in on defense like we did today, the sky’s the limit for our team,” said guard Justin Drummond, who has been every bit the all-around talent he showed at practices last season as a transfer. “I don’t want to say zero losses, but I can say that in my heart.”
Drummond added, “We owed this team,” meaning Detroit, to atone for Toledo’s lackluster effort 11 days earlier at Detroit’s Calihan Hall.
The sequel to a thrilling 19-point comeback was bereft of suspense. Detroit (4-5) never led, trailing by double digits for the final 34 minutes.
In the absence of drama was an offensive exhibition courtesy of the Rockets. Rian Pearson matched his career-high with 30 points, 22 of those coming in the first half. Those who may have been watching their first glimpses of Toledo and Pearson came away thinking the left-hander is a prolific outside shooter. Pearson is a lot of things — athletic, rangy, hyper competitive — but a marksman he is not. He has never made more than eight 3-pointers in a season. For one night anyway he shed his long-range deficiences, knocking down five 3s, two more than his previous career high.
Detroit’s Ugochukwu Njoku refused to bite on a Pearson head fake early on, contributing to a surge of confidence for the All Mid-American Conference forward. Pearson raised over Njoku from the right wing, the same spot on the floor in which he delivered his next three triples. He capped his final 3, this one from the corner, with a fist pump, widening the gap to 80-63 with 7:31 remaining and increasing his point total to 29. Pearson was perfect on five shots beyond the arc.
“I think it was mainly my confidence after I shot the first one,” said Pearson, who acknowledged his professional opportunities could hinge on his developing a consistent outside shot. “That’s normally how players get going. If you hit the first one you hit the rest of them.”
Needing to make two free throws with 1:14 left to establish a new career high, Pearson missed the first and made the second. He then exited the floor to a standing ovation, leaving with eight rebounds and three assists in 29 minutes.
Of equal importance was Pearson’s contribution at the other end of the floor, holding leading scorer Juwan Howard Jr. scoreless in the first half. Howard, who scored in double figures his three previous games against Toledo, including a 23-point outburst this season, finished with nine points.
“Rian Pearson’s one of the most prideful people I’ve ever been around,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “He didn’t play his best against Detroit. Howard got the best of him and he wasn’t going to let it happen again.”
Drummond and Detroit-area native Jonathan Williams had 11 points a piece, and Drummond added season highs with seven rebounds and five assists. Freshman Jordan Lauf (eight points, six boards) excited the crowd with the sort of hustles plays of which he’s quickly become synonymous.
The Rockets, who entered the day third nationally in scoring, topped 90 points for the fifth time. They shot a blistering 63 percent in a wildly entertaining first half, leading 56-39. Pearson had 22 points at that time on 9 of 11 shooting.
Fans grazed cheerfully at intermission, delighted by thoughts of what is yet to come.
After the game Kowalczyk walked into the student section, slapping hands with the younger generation of supporters.
“This is their team,” Kowalczyk said. “It’s also the community’s team. I think people are starting to take notice and people are talking about it and hopefully telling their friends that good things are happening.”