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Rockets rally for 96-85 OT win over W. Michigan, keep hopes alive for top spot in MAC

03/02/2014, 1:40am EST
By RYAN AUTULLO BLADE SPORTS WRITER
UT men win OT thriller

Toledo’s J.D. Weatherspoon dunks in front of Western Michigan’s AJ Avery. Weatherspoon had 14 points.

Tod Kowalczyk entered his postgame news conference and flipped the script on a room of reporters.

“Maybe I should ask you a question,” the University of Toledo’s basketball coach said. “Was that exciting enough?”

His team’s 96-85 overtime triumph over Western Michigan indeed was exciting. And improbable. Stunning? Yeah, it was also stunning.

Above all else it was essential.

The Rockets’ aim at the top seed in the Mid-American Conference tournament remains alive after a night in which they nearly received their last rites.

Down 12 points with three minutes to go, the magic that evaded this team in the month of February made an emphatic return in front of a crowd of 6,912 whose faith had started to dip in recent days.

PHOTO GALLERY: Click here to view photos of the game.

COMMENTARY: Improbable finish saves UT's season

Shots started dropping. Loose balls bounced to the home team. Western Michigan, winners of eight in a row, threw away possessions.

Kowalczyk didn’t allow time for anyone to answer his question before offering, “That’s why you never stop believing. This team has been unbelievably resilient all year long.”

This night accomplished a lot, from matching the 1939-40 team with a school-record 24 wins, to giving Toledo the inside track to the top seed with two regular seasons games to go. It also re-established Toledo’s mojo, which point guard Julius Brown proclaimed earlier in the week would make its return after going missing in February.

“Once we got into overtime we were saying to ourselves, ‘this is our game, now we’re going to take it from them,’” Brown said.

The Rockets controlled the extra period, scoring the first five points and going a perfect 10 of 10 at the free-throw line. They led by as many as 13 points, a stunning turnaround from the 13 points which they trailed by with seven minutes left in regulation.

Justin Drummond took charge with 28 points and eight rebounds, including a couple of layups late in the second half to force a tie. Toledo took its first lead with 48 seconds to go on two free throws by freshman Jonathan Williams.

Drummond’s leadership was key, his coach asserted, as the junior captain kept the team afloat even after WMU withstood a Toledo surge with consecutive three-point plays to go ahead 73-62 at the 3:44 mark.

Connor Tava scored and was fouled after the Rockets got their hands on a loose ball but couldn’t secure the rebound. The next trip down the floor David Brown hit three free throws after Rian Pearson fouled him on an outside shot.

“I saw a couple guys tipping their heads a little bit and I said, ‘Keep fighting, man,” said Drummond, who offered a similar message at halftime with his team trailing by 12.

A four-guard set started pressing, leading to hurried possessions by WMU. Nathan Boothe, who fouled out with zero points in Wednesday’s loss at Northern Illinois, drained his second 3-pointer of the season to trim the deficit to six. UT’s Brown scored on a 2-on-1 with Pearson. After Tava incurred an offensive foul — his fifth — Boothe threw a bullet under the basket to an open Drummond. Pearson forced a traveling call on WMU’s Brown, and Drummond followed with a put back off a Brown miss. With the score tied, WMU turned it over again, unable to inbound the ball.

“We knew they were a high turnover team and those turnovers led to our favor,” Kowalczyk said.

UT’s Brown missed from 3 at the end of regulation.

WMU coach Steve Hawkins called the loss “a really tough one to take at this point and time.” His team is tied at 12-4 in the league with Toledo and Buffalo, but Toledo will own all tiebreakers if it can close with wins over Central Michigan on the road and at home against Eastern Michigan.

WMU’s marquee players were a handful. Brown, the MAC’s leading scorer, abused Pearson for four 3s in the first half. He was just 2 of 13 from the field the rest of the way.

Center Shayne Whittington had his way with Boothe and Zach Garber, totaling 25 points to go with 13 boards.

UT’s Brown, unable to penetrate in the first half against the 6-11 Whittington, eventually found creases and finished with 18 points and 10 assists.

Pearson, who went 0 for 6 in the first half, had 11 points including a 3 early in overtime. Boothe (13 points) and J.D. Weatherspoon (14 points) did their part as well.

“You have to appeal to their pride a little bit,” Kowalczyk said. “I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t have to do that a whole lot. I had Drummond and Brown do that for me.”

Contact Ryan Autullo at: rautullo@theblade.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.

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