Wednesday’s plot took a gradual twist, as shorthanded University of Toledo not only won, but won a game of attrition.
The Rockets, minus a suspended starter, eventually became the more able-bodied team and dodged a bullet from Justin Drummond’s suspension with an 82-76 home win against Ohio.
The Bobcats countered UT’s shameful week with a suspension to one of their own and eventually lost their point guard to injury. Throw in the two key contributors who fouled out and UT’s punch was unexpectedly stronger by the end of this rematch to a remarkable clash 11 days earlier.
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The win, coupled with Akron’s loss at Western Michigan, gives Toledo (21-3, 9-2) the top perch in the Mid-American Conference and affords the masses a collective sigh of relief in the wake of the bombshell that Drummond, a team captain, was charged on Saturday with driving under the influence.
“We rallied around it a little bit,” coach Tod Kowalczyk said.
Rian Pearson put together a brave performance in his teammate’s absence, exuding an appreciable level of energy for the second game in a row and pouring in 29 points. His performance — which included six rebounds, three assists, and three steals — was a complete turnaround from the four-point effort he gave the Rockets two weeks back in an overtime loss in Athens and piggy-backed on his late-game theatrics in Saturday’s win at Ball State.
Pearson began the game in attack mode, driving at OU’s undersized Travis Wilkins, who got the start because of T.J. Hall’s suspension. Hall, a 6-foot-6 senior, was kept out with an academic issue.
Losing Hall may have been a blessing for the Bobcats (17-7, 7-4), as Wilkins evaded UT’s defense all night, draining five corner 3-pointers. Wilkins, who fouled out with less than a minute left, scored 17 points and led Ohio with eight rebounds.
Losing point guard Stevie Taylor was more hurtful. Taylor, who scored a career-high 23 points in the first meeting, left the game with a recurring calf injury with seven minutes to go. As he grimaced on the floor, Pearson seized a 5-on-4 opportunity for a transition layup, building the gap to 65-60 with his seventh straight UT point.
Pearson scored 20 points or more for the second straight game after going 10 straight games without reaching that mark. He hit both of the 3s he took, reverting to a trend he established in the nonconference season and abandoned of late.
“He’s a big-time player for us,” point guard Julius Brown. “We knew he was going to come out ready to go. He put us on his back tonight and showed us what he’s about.”
Brown came off the court just once because of Drummond’s absence, which left a void at backup point guard. He had a fine game, totaling 17 points, six assists, and six rebounds.
Freshman Jonathan Williams, who started in place of Drummond, had 12 points Wednesday, as did Nathan Boothe, who had just two at halftime.
Williams exceeded his minutes average by halftime and wound up logging 36 — 11 more than his previous high.
“I knew without Justin everybody would have to step their game up,” Pearson said.
That included J.D. Weatherspoon, whose motivation derived from elsewhere. Ohio’s Maurice Ndour chided Weatherspoon for not playing defense in the first game, when Ndour looked like the MAC’s best player with 28 points and 12 rebounds. But the Senegal native turned in a clunker in the sequel, with nine points and two rebounds before fouling out with 3:35 left.
“His comments were disrespectful toward Spoon,” Kowalczyk said. “Spoon was ready for him.”
Weatherspoon (eight points) dunked three times for all of his made field goals and upped his season dunk total to 37.