Unbeaten UT struggles, but wins

Rockets fight through lethargy to pull away from Sam Houston St.

UT’s J.D. Weatherspoon dunks against Sam Houston State’s Jabari Peters, left. Weatherspoon finished with 16 points.
UT’s J.D. Weatherspoon dunks against Sam Houston State’s Jabari Peters, left. Weatherspoon finished with 16 points.

Maybe the best way to stop the University of Toledo’s breakneck offense is to stand by as it stops itself.

It happened Saturday amid a lethargic funk at Savage Arena, where the Rockets, after trudging through finals week — and several inches of slushy snow — came out lifeless for a rare afternoon test against Sam Houston State.

After 20 minutes, the nation’s fifth-ranked scoring offense had a meager 28 points, its lowest total in any half this season.

That the Rockets could sleep walk for 50 percent of a game against a credible opponent and win by 16 points is perhaps the ultimate nod to the weaponry of this undefeated team.

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The two first-year transfers, Justin Drummond and J.D. Weatherspoon, energized a surprisingly impressive crowd with second-half dunks to engineer a 77-61 triumph — the Rockets’ ninth in a row to start the season. Toledo will try to match the 10-0 mark of the 1998-99 team on Tuesday at Arkansas State, which dropped to 5-3 Saturday in a road loss at Nebraska.

Drummond scored 11 of his game-high 18 points after halftime, including a two-handed dunk in which he exploded through the lane as part of an 8-0 run to take the lead for good.

“I had a chance to make an energy play,” said Drummond, who later hit a 3-pointer to go up 16. “That was the play I think that sparked us.”

An announced crowd of 3,602 — larger than expected considering the messy conditions outside — had been waiting to see some explosives from an offense that entered the day ranked fifth in points (90.5) and sixth in field goal percentage (52.2). In his postgame radio interview, Rockets coach Tod Kowalczyk gave the brave supporters of his team a round of applause.

“No. 1 key ... Justin Drummond’s energy to start the half was tremendous,” Kowalczyk said. “I don’t think he had energy to start the game. Of all the guys, I thought he had the least amount of energy to start the game.”

Weatherspoon established a career-high with 16 points, none prettier that a thunderous flush to beat a full-court press. The Ohio State transfer crossed half court and passed to Nathan Boothe on the left elbow before cutting to the basket where Boothe found him to go up 57-47.

Weatherspoon, who scored all but two of his points in the second half, was asked who between himself and Drummond had the best dunk.

“I don’t mean to brag, but I think I had the best dunk,” said Weatherspoon, adding. “I dunked it so hard I almost missed it.”

Another Weatherspoon jam, this one along the baseline off a Drummond feed, pumped the lead to 18.

Sam Houston State, playing its seventh game in a row on the road or at a neutral site, fell to 7-4. Its top two scorers, former junior college teammates Jabari Peters and Kaheem Ransom, combined to score 15 points on 5 of 24 shooting.

The Bearkats led at halftime 30-28, marking the fourth time Toledo has been down at intermission in this season of second-half rallies.

“We just huddled up and said we need to bring more energy,” Weatherspoon said.

Freshman Jonathan Williams matched his season-high with 15 points, five coming during a first half Kowalczyk called “probably his worst half of the year.”

“In the second half he was really good,” the coach added.

Rian Pearson added 12 points, knocking down a 3-pointer — his ninth of the season, a career high.

Toledo’s 21 assists — spread over seven players — marked a season high. Its five turnovers were a season low.

“Those are unbelievable numbers,” Kowalczyk said.

Though players have adopted a one-game-at-a-time mantra, the rest of us can look at the possibility of Toledo setting a school record for wins to start a season. To equal the 14-0 start of the 1966-67 team, the Rockets must win Tuesday at Arkansas State, beat Cleveland State and Coppin State in consecutive home games, and top nationally-ranked Kansas and a quality Western Michigan team in road games.

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.