AKRON — Concerns confronting the upstart challenger have dissipated.
The champion’s worries intensified.
Round One between the Mid-American Conference’s top challengers went to the University of Toledo. Startlingly, the game wasn’t close. The Rockets showed better skill, composure, and yes, toughness, in a dominant 75-61 road win at Akron.
The victory, UT’s third in a row after a MAC-opening loss at Western Michigan, does the following:
■ Snaps Akron’s seven-game stranglehold in the series, also ending the Zips’ 18-game supremacy over the MAC West.
■ Marks coach Tod Kowalczyk’s biggest win in four seasons on the job and caps a monumental week that began with a buzzer-beating win on Wednesday over East division hopeful Buffalo.
■ Dispels speculation Toledo cannot counter Akron’s physicality and validates the theory there’s a gulf separating these teams at point guard.
Julius Brown capped his rollicking week with a season-high 25 points, and J.D. Weatherspoon showed why Toledo so badly needed him in order to chase down the top-flight teams in the league. Weatherspoon, the Ohio State transfer with unnatural athleticism, played his best game in midnight blue and gold, posting career highs of 20 points and 14 rebounds. His energy early on the offensive glass delivered a powerful message that the Rockets intended to bully the bully and not rely on a finesse advantage over a svelte Akron squad that Zips coach Keith Dambrot asserted needed to “maul” and “bruise” Toledo to set the tone.
“Our mindset was to hit them first,” Weatherspoon said. “I thought we did a good job of that.”
With Weatherspoon winning his individual battle with returning MAC tournament MVP Demetrius Treadwell (18 points, 10 rebounds), Toledo controlled the glass 42 to 28 and secured 16 of its own missed shots. Rockets center Nathan Boothe (10 points, seven boards) outplayed big men Pat Forsythe and Isaiah Johnson, who combined for four points and a rebound.
“What caught me a little bit is I was surprised by their toughness level,” Akron coach Keith Dambrot said. “They showed championship-quality toughness.”
Dambrot should know. Toughness is the pillar of his program, which has appeared in the past seven MAC title games. Voters predicted the Zips would return, with the popular consensus that Toledo would be there waiting for Dambrot’s team on March 15 at Quicken Loans Arena.
Should the preseason poll come to fruition, Akron will need a better plan for defending Brown. He blew by traditional point guards Nyles Evans and Carmelo Betancourt and did much of the same when Dambrot commanded 6-6 Quincy Diggs and 6-7 Reggie McAdams to stop Brown from penetrating. Forgoing his facilitating duties, Brown, the MAC assist leader, had just one assist but drained four 3-pointers. Two of them came toward the end of the first half to build a 37-28 lead entering the break.
“I had a pretty good idea they were going to do that,” Brown said. “They’ve put bigger players on me in the past.”
Two more 3-pointers by Brown bookended a 10-2 run that put the Rockets ahead 15 with 11:40 left. The lead soon grew to 18, never dipping to single digits the rest of the way. A crowd of 4,500-plus stood up to leave with more than two minutes remaining, resigned to their team losing at home for just the fourth time in 47 games.
“For anyone to come in and whip us like that is demoralizing,” Dambrot said.
The win came despite uncharacteristically poor performances by two of Toledo’s steadiest hands. Leading scorer Rian Pearson had just six points on 2 of 8 shooting with three rebounds. Justin Drummond, who did not start in order for Kowalczyk to counter Akron’s talented bench, had four points and seven turnovers.
“I don’t think we got Akron’s best shot,” Kowalczyk said. “We’ll get their best shot when we see them again.”