There is a feeling the University of Toledo basketball team is always in control of a tense moment, a sentiment validated not only by the Rockets’ spiffy 11-0 record but the routine manner in which they close out white-knuckle battles.
Consider Saturday’s 71-67 victory over Cleveland State, a performance that fits into the cookie cutter mold of a season defined so far by grit in crunch time.
Guards Julius Brown and Justin Drummond missed 16 of 18 shots from the field but authored two of the bigger moments— Brown with a nifty dribble drive, Drummond with a determined steal.
PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view photos from the game.
Not unlike road wins at Boston College, Detroit, and Robert Morris, the key stretch belonged to the Rockets whose penchant for bravery at the end of games represents the gap between what could have simply been a good start and what’s transpiring, which is a start for the ages. You’ll have to go back to 1966-67 to find the last Toledo team to start a season 11-0. That squad began 14-0 — a school record.
“We have the mindset we’re not losing any games,” said Brown, whose 10th assist came with 21 seconds to go after he split a double team and found J.D. Weatherspoon for a dunk and a four-point lead. “We knew it was time to step up as a team.”
Drummond — Brown’s roommate along with Weatherspoon — followed with another pivotal play, this time on defense. After he missed the front end of a 1-and-1 situation that could have iced the game, Drummond chased Lewis into the half court and stole the ball away. Drummond returned to the line with 0.4 seconds left, this time making both.
“He’s as fine of a leader as I’ve been around in 26 years of coaching,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “He didn’t give up on the play. It’s a hell of a play.”
Kowalczyk, apparently so spoiled by his team’s ability to persevere in crunch time, said he felt his team was in control “virtually the whole game.” The crowd of 4,207 might debate that point, as CSU fought back from nine down with nine minutes left and later tied the game on a Trey Lewis spinning runner with 1:36 remaining. The surge was dissimilar from the first half when the Vikings used a 13-0 run over two-plus minutes to chip into a UT lead that stood once at 16-2.
Offensively speaking, Toledo played its worst game thus far. Its point total marks a season-low, as does its field goal percentage (36.5). Perplexed by CSU’s rare 1-1-3 zone, the Rockets registered their first two sub-40 percent halves of the season and made an icy 3 of 18 3-pointers.
“I don’t think we’ll se a zone like that the rest of the year,” Kowalczyk said.
Giving major minutes to the team’s best outside shooter, Matt Smith, was not a viable option, said Kowalczyk, because the coach would have had to remove Weatherspoon from the floor. The Ohio State transfer was excellent, scoring a career high 18 points to go along with eight rebounds, three blocked shots, and two steals.
Weatherspoon accounted for five of UT’s 21 offensive rebounds, its most against a Division I opponent since the Rockets pulled down that same total against Central Michigan in January, 2003.
“We knew our shots weren’t falling so we had to attack the glass,” said Weatherspoon, who had half of his team’s points in the 16-2 start.
Kowalczyk proudly announced Weatherspoon, who was academically ineligible for much of his freshman season at Ohio State, attained a 3.3 grade-point average this semester.
“From the spring on, he’s been very focused,” said Kowalczyk, who was referring to Weatherspoon’s improvement on the basketball court but just as easily could have been praising his classroom achievement.
Nathan Boothe contributed 14 points and eight rebounds, and Brown atoned for 1 of 10 shooting with 10 assists. Rian Pearson added 11 points, including a baseline hook over 6-foot-8 Anton Grady for a two-point lead late.
“I told Anton, you don’t let him shoot that hook. You block that shot,” CSU coach Gary Waters said. “I mean, 6-8 against 6-4, you don’t let that happen.”
Lewis had team highs of 21 points and seven rebounds.