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Last week is one to forget, as the University of Toledo basketball team turned in two of its poorest performances in a season that’s more or less taken on the moniker of NCAA tournament or bust.
This week, a possible 180, could be a memory book stuffer.
But before the Rockets could give attention to a 74-year school record, a division title, or prime seeding at the league tournament, they first had to dispatch the Mid-American Conference’s worst team. They did that, albeit with some trepidation, in an 85-74 home win over a Ball State team without the services of All-MAC center Majok Majok.
All five starters finished in double figures, none more important than the slump-busting 17 points registered by both Nathan Boothe and Justin Drummond. They had similar lines, shooting 7 of 9 from the field and grabbing six (Boothe) and five (Drummond) rebounds. Neither provided much value to their team last week in a 21-point loss at Eastern Michigan or at Bowling Green, where the Rockets squandered a 19-point second half lead and escaped triumphantly on their final possession.
PHOTO GALLERY: UT men handle Ball State 85-74
Coach Tod Kowalczyk will need the good versions of Boothe and Drummond this week when Toledo chases down a school record Wednesday at Northern Illinois and locks up Saturday with Western Michigan in a clash of teams currently tied for the MAC’s best record.
“That’s important,” Kowalczyk said. “They’re X factors for us, especially Drummond. When he plays well, that’s just another guy.”
This win, No. 23, pulls the Rockets into a tie with three other Toledo teams for second place behind the 24 wins attained by the 1939-40 squad. Climbing another rung seems a matter of when and not if, as the Rockets (23-4, 11-3) are assured of at least five more games. Kowalczyk said he’ll address the achievement with his team, “but it’s not what we’re playing for. We’re playing for something much bigger.”
Toledo at times approached this meeting with the 20-loss Cardinals as a chore, exhibiting meager energy impugned afterward by Kowalczyk and point guard Julius Brown. Even without the injured Majok, who averages a double-double 10 points and 10 rebounds, the Cardinals corralled most 50-50 balls and with eight minutes left had 4,912 Savage Arena visitors clenched to a tie game.
Jesse Berry, a marksman who singed the Rockets last March for 22 points, heated early, draining four first half 3-pointers. With Drummond assigned to Berry the entire second half, the senior scored just three more points — on a deep shot that tied the score at 60 with 8:24 remaining. He finished with 17 points. Kowalczyk said Drummond’s defensive effort was the best it’s been all season. He elevated his offensive game as well, getting untracked with drives to the basket to wash away the combined 2 of 11 shooting and nine points he mustered in his two other appearances since being charged this month with driving under the influence.
Boothe’s slump was deeper, as he managed four points against EMU and BG on 2 of 11 shooting. Film review showed him rushing off-balanced shots, Boothe said.
“They’re great players,” said Brown, who drained three of his four 3s in the first half to build an 11-point lead at the break. “We knew they were going to get out of it eventually.”
Brown finished with 20 points — marking the seventh time he’s reached that barrier — and recorded seven assists against one turnover. He found Boothe rolling to the basket for a 10-point lead with under two minutes left and buried a jumper the next trip down the floor.
Chris Bond had 22 points for Ball State, which has yet to win on the road.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.