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On a night in which fans were instructed to wear white, the University of Toledo’s opponent refused to wave a white flag on a season in decline.
Normally a Mid-American Conference contender, Kent State entered Savage Arena with three league losses and staring at a fourth against the MAC’s hot new thing. The Golden Flashes unveiled a smart game plan and executed it with precision but like many others this season flinched in a late-game standoff with the Rockets (17-2, 5-1 Mid-American Conference).
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UT’s 81-78 victory Sunday was hardly perfect, but what remains unscathed is Toledo’s success in crunch time. Buoyed by its starting guards driving to the basket for a couple of key buckets, the Rockets ran their record in games decided by four points or less to 7-0.
Justin Drummond crashed the lane coming out of a timeout with 62 seconds left, blowing by his initial defender and a help defender before finishing through contact at the rim for a three-point play and a five-point lead over Kent State (11-8, 2-4).
On Toledo’s next trip, and with the shot clock winding down, Julius Brown salvaged a clumsy possession with a drive to the rim and a layup.
Foiled in critical moments was Kent’s plan to stop the guards from attacking, a plan that yielded solid results for much of the night and put in jeopardy a home win streak the Rockets extended to 10.
“We did the best job we could to keep them out of the lane,” Golden Flashes coach Rob Senderoff said. “I thought we did a pretty good job.”
Senderoff, whose team led by six with five minutes to play, lauded the execution of the junior guards. He called Drummond, who led Toledo in scoring for the second straight game with 15 points, “a very, very good player.”
He went further with Brown, suggesting six games into the conference season the 5-foot-10 point guard is the MAC’s MVP, and hinted Brown has overtaken teammate Rian Pearson as Toledo’s alpha dog. Brown, who encountered multiple defenders for much of the night, managed 14 points and seven assists.
“They’ve got an unbelievable amount of confidence,” Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said of captains Brown and Drummond.
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That Brown and Drummond were in a position to win the game came about because of Toledo’s continuous procession to the free-throw line. The Rockets made 27 of 39 against Kent’s 9 of 14.
“We’re good at getting fouled,” Kowalczyk said. “Conversely, we’re good at not fouling.”
Pearson recorded his second double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 rebounds. J.D Weatherspoon chipped in 14 points and six boards and ignited a whiteout crowd of 5,611 with a emphatic dunk with about a minute to play. The only starter to not score in double figures was center Nathan Boothe (eight points), although his understudy in Kowalczyk’s estimation was the player of the game. With Boothe in foul trouble, freshman Zach Garber gave 14 solid minutes, scoring a basket immediately upon checking in midway through the second half. He finished with eight points — his most against a Division I opponent — and matched his season-high of five boards.
“Without question his best offensive game of the year,” said Kowalczyk, who credited Garber with “saving us the game” after Boothe checked out.
Kent State, in its first game since a 16-point home loss to Western Michigan, relied on stellar nights from guards Kris Brewer, who mirrored Toledo’s Brown with 14 points and seven assists, and Derek Jackson, who nailed two 3-pointers in the final minute, each cutting his team’s deficit to two. Forward Darren Goodson (17 points, six rebounds) made a 3 at the halftime buzzer but missed an open look trying to regain the lead with under two minutes left.
Like many before them, Kent rattled Toledo with a winning effort but stomached a losing result.
“There’s a reason they’re 17-2,” Senderoff said. “They have very good personnel, they have a good coach, they’re a good team.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160, or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.