KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Next time it visits here the University of Toledo basketball team should consider shaking things up and doing something different.
Maybe take an alternate route, navigating the back roads if needed. Maybe suit up in the hotel instead of the locker room. For that matter, maybe stay in a different hotel.
The routine for this road trip to Western Michigan simply is not working, a claim supported by an 87-76 loss at University Arena, Toledo’s seventh in a row.
Staying faithful to the script from previous encounters, the Rockets were ambushed at the start, though this time the bludgeoning stopped midway through, enough time for a decent little game to unfold between a couple of expected contenders in the Mid-American Conference West division. Give Toledo credit for battling back from 22 points early, but this defeat counts the same as the more lopsided losses in this recurring Kalamazoo nightmare.
Starting MAC play 0-1 is a minor hole, unlike the 36-14 point gap that beset the Rockets a little more than halfway through the first half. Pick anything — shot selection, energy, stopping dribble penetration — and Tod Kowalczyk’s team did a lousy job of it, marking their worst half of the season — by far — and out-stinking the first-half egg they laid a year ago at WMU when the Rockets were down 15 at the break.
“Defensively we didn’t communicate,” Kowalczyk said. “We gave up some open looks because of lack of communication, and I thought our shot selection in the first half was way too quick and led to transition for them. That was the story of the game.”
No story is complete without mentioning past episodes at University Arena, as the Rockets have now lost 11 of 12 here, a streak interrupted only by an overtime win in UT’s 2006-07 MAC regular-season championship run. Doing its best impression of Groundhog Day, Toledo has dropped its last seven by double digits, with this 11-point spread registering as the narrowest of a selection that includes three defeats by 20 points or more.
“They play with great energy at home and they feed off their crowd,” guard Julius Brown said. “That’s a plus for them.”
Brown finished with 12 points and four assists but played shoddy defense against Austin Richie, letting WMU’s complementary part drain four 3-pointers in the first half to offset a scoreless half by teammate David Brown, the MAC’s leading scorer.
Toledo’s Brown received a stern lecture by Rockets assistant Jordan Mincy on the court prior to the start of the second half.
WMU’s Brown along with center Shayne Whittington and forward Connar Tava — the three of them being WMU’s best players — played limited minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, adding to the bewilderment of their team’s destruction of a Toledo squad that as recently as last week was flirting with a top-25 ranking before losing at Kansas.
Tava did not miss any of the nine shots he attempted, finishing with a career-high 25 points to go with five rebounds. Richie (19 points) slowed down in the second half but Brown (12 points) got going, driving by Justin Drummond for a three-point play and a nine-point lead with 2:14 to go.
“I told DB, ‘It’s your game, they haven’t seen you yet. You’re the best player in this gym,” Richie said.
WMU’s 60 percent shooting is the second highest Toledo has allowed this season.
Drummond led Toledo with 18 points and was among four Rockets to foul out. Rian Pearson had 13 points and 13 rebounds, the latter marking the highest total by a Toledo player this season.
A Pearson 3 on an ill-advised shot closed the gap to 74-70 with 4:40 to go, finalizing a 14-2 run. The Rockets were unable to inch closer, missing shots from outside but at least battling.
“This team has to stop relying on offensive spurts in the second half to win games,” Kowalczyk said. “When we do that we’ll be fine. We didn’t play well in two games all year. This is one of two ... we’ll be fine.”