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LAWRENCE, Kan. — The team beginning to receive national exposure had no interest in genuflecting to the kid who has basked in the spotlight all season.
Precocious Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins would be known by number, not name, to the undefeated mid-major team that visited Allen Fieldhouse on Monday.
Refusing to cower in their biggest test of the year, the University of Toledo went through an afternoon shootaround barking out defensive assignments against No. 22, never speaking the name of the country’s top recruit from a year ago.
Intimidation did not factor in Toledo’s first loss of the season, a 93-83 setback brought on by physical mismatches rather than an inferiority complex about stepping into a sacred ground in college basketball.
Like a fighter climbing up the ranks to land a title shot, the Rockets blew past their first 12 opponents before being felled in front of 16,300 fans that comprised the 202nd consecutive sellout at the iconic gymnasium — which has been positively brutal to opposing teams. Kansas, ranked 16th while playing the nation’s toughest schedule, upped its home win streak against non-Big 12 opponents to 67.
“Our guys weren’t starstruck by the atmosphere or by their players,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “I think they did a good job. I told them we don’t need to be anything special.”
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The season, though, has begun to feel special, and this loss doesn’t much change that. National publications USA Today and the New York Times over the weekend chronicled Toledo’s four-year rise from ineptitude to the cusp of the Top 25, praising a program that entered Monday as one of eight teams in the country still unbeaten.
The Rockets will catch a breather before Mid-American Conference play commences in nine days, popping the cork at Western Michigan for the start of an 18-game slate with far greater implications than a Dec. 30 tilt against a team stacked with McDonald’s All-Americans.
“I thought we played very hard,” said Rian Pearson, a native of nearby Raytown, Mo., who drew 20 friends and family members. “We’ve never played a team that big with length.”
The biggest fear — a size deficiency — was founded. Kansas controlled the boards 44 to 28, a 16-rebound gap that marks a high this season against Toledo. The Jayhawks pulled down 18 of their missed shots and got UT’s starting posts in foul trouble. Nathan Boothe, who otherwise was stellar with 15 points and five assists, played only 23 minutes before he fouled out with 1:33 to go. He rotated much of the second half with freshman Zach Garber in an offense-defense substitution pattern.
Kansas’ frontcourt duo Joel Embiid and Perry Ellis took advantage, combining for 21 rebounds and 35 points. Kowalczyk heaped praise on Embiid, calling the 7-footer and five-star prospect in Kansas’ ballyhooed freshman class, “special.”
“Bigger, longer, and better than I anticipated coming in,” Kowalczyk added.
Wiggins, whose silky floor game and fast first step has drawn comparisons to the NBA’s elite, is as good as advertised. The most thrilling of his 20 points came with a minute-plus remaining on a two-handed transition flush to go up 13.
Kowalczyk expressed early in the day confidence that his team would win if it could maintain a five or six-point deficit at the five-minute mark. The hole by then was nine, following a Jonathan Williams 3 and a Pearson jumper that tightened a gap that had grown to as many as 16 in the half. Somewhere around that time the Rockets went four straight possessions without a bucket, a surprise considering their consistent efficiency that later drew the displeasure of Kansas coach Bill Self. Self, who is 166-9 at home in 10-plus seasons at Kansas, lamented the 83 points his team allowed on 46 percent shooting.
“You score 93 points you should win that game by a bunch of points,” Self said. “We don’t ever give up 70 at home, let alone 83, especially when the other team only makes 10 free throws. That’s unacceptable.”
Boothe got any shot he wanted, attempting a career-high 13 of them. Point guard Julius Brown nailed three 3-pointers for nine points and mixed in five assists. Pearson (10 points) and Weatherspoon (13) were solid.
“We’re a great second half team,” said Justin Drummond, who scored 13 points. “We just got outplayed. Well, we didn’t get outplayed. The length hurt us.”