CORAOPOLIS, Pa. — Saturday marked roughly the quarter point of the regular season for the University of Toledo basketball team, giving an adequate sample to see trends developing.
One observation is a rather obvious one. The Rockets win. A lot. They ran their perfect season to 8-0 with a gutsy 80-77 decision on the road against a better-than-advertised Robert Morris team.
Another trend centers on first halves. Toledo is merely OK in the opening 20 minutes, trailing now three times at the break after going into the locker room down four in its latest comeback effort.
The latest tendency to unfold is the habit of players making big time stops at big time moments. No matter how poor Toledo’s defense may be performing — or, in some cases, now matter how deadly the opposing offense is shooting — guys seem to step up with stops to stem momentum. It happened again at the Sewall Center, with Jordan Lauf drawing a momentum-shifting charge and Justin Drummond committing a heady foul to enable their team to maintain perfection for at least one more night.
In many ways this should have been the game that reduced Toledo to the list of beatens, a group that as of this week included all but 17 teams in the country. Robert Morris, playing at home for the first time after four road losses, shot a blistering 63 percent from the floor — the highest mark ever against a Tod Kowalczyk-coached Toledo team.
Its top two players, Lucky Jones and Karvel Anderson, combined for 48 points on 19-of-23 shooting. A 2-3 zone the Colonials installed on the fly last week slowed Toledo — the nation’s third-ranked scoring offense — although slowed is a relative term for a team that managed still to shoot 50 percent.
“It would have been ugly if we would have played man-to-man,” RMU coach Andy Toole said.
RMU (3-7) had a good plan. The Colonials did not, however, perform in a precious point of the game Toledo likes to call “winning time.”
Lauf, who has a rare talent to take over games with hustle and defense, stepped in front of the RMU’s Anthony Myers-Pate with 18 seconds left, drawing a charge on the perimeter to give the Rockets possession and an 80-77 lead. Drummond was the first Rocket to high-five Lauf, whom Drummond later affectionately called “a garbage guy.”
“Lauf’s an amazing player,” he said. “Amazing energy guy. And he does it every game. A guy like that’s priceless.”
Drummond threw the ball away on the next possession and hinted later he thought he was fouled as he faded out of bounds at halfcourt. He soon made up for the snafu, fouling Anderson with one second to go on a possession that began with 6.4 ticks left. Kowalczyk is a proponent of fouling at the end of the game with a three-point lead but point guard Julius Brown didn’t get the message, leaving Drummond to take control.
Toole said Kowalczyk made a good decision by putting Anderson at the line rather than playing out the possession.
Anderson missed his first attempt, with Lauf rebounding for the win.
“This team’s so great because we get stops when we need to get stops,” Drummond said. “At crucial times, we really lock in and come together. That’s how we get these great, grind out games on the road.”
Added Lauf: “When it’s winning time we kind of lock in and pull each other together.”
Backcourt mates Drummond and Brown had 16 points a piece, and Brown added seven assists. Pearson, coming off his matching of a career-high 30 points Wednesday against Detroit, finished with 19 points and seven boards.
Toledo, which has made 46 more free throws than its opponents have attempted, was 19 of 22 from the stripe. Drummond hit twice with 55 seconds left after rebounding a Brown miss.
“Free throw shooting is definitely our backbone,” Drummond said.
RMU, the defending Northeast Conference regular season champion, was 5 of 12 from the line.
Toledo, which plays a home game Saturday against Sam Houston State, has won five straight road contests and seven of eight dating back to last year.
“Bottom line: We have guys that just make plays at the end of the game,” Kowalczyk said. "That’s something we’re very, very happy about.”