At first glance, it seemed the University of Toledo men’s basketball team was handed a lump of coal entering the holidays.
Senior Steve Taylor, one of the Rockets leading scorers and rebounders, took a shot to the nose at Marshall last Saturday, did not practice at all this week, and did not play in Saturday’s game against Southeastern Louisiana.
But the Rockets turned that lump of coal into a diamond, thanks to a strong defensive effort in a 78-56 win at Savage Arena.
IN PICTURES: UT men 78, SE Louisiana 56
Toledo squeezed Southeastern Louisiana so hard, the Lions fell more than 20 points under their season’s scoring average. The Rockets surrendered nine points fewer than in any game this season to improve to 5-6 on the year.
“In practice this last week, we really focused on getting better on the defensive end,” senior Jordan Lauf said. “We were fine-tuning what we do.
“The coaches do a great job of giving us an edge with the scouting report, and we just went out and executed.”
Jonathan Williams had 24 points to lead four players in double figures for Toledo. Jaelan Sanford scored 15, while Lauf, a Napoleon native, had 13 points, and Nate Navigato scored 10.
Moses Greenwood had 15 points for Southeastern Louisiana (6-5), while Davon Hayes scored 14. Marlain Veal, who came into the game averaging 15.1 points, scored seven.
“I thought Jaelen did a good job on Veal, and thought Jordan did a good job on Hayes,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Those are two good players and good scorers, but I thought we defended them well.”
The start of the game saw the teams exchange baskets before a Williams jumper kick-started a 9-0 run by the Rockets that gave them an 18-10 lead with 10:45 left in the half.
Williams made a 3-pointer and layup on consecutive possessions to extend the Rockets lead to 25-14 with 6:48 to go, but the Lions cut their deficit to five points before UT took a 33-26 halftime lead.
One area of concern for the Rockets at the half was rebounding as the Lions grabbed 11 offensive boards to outrebound UT 23-19.
“Steve Taylor is the leading defensive rebounder in the entire country, so when you take him out there’s not one player who can replace him,” Kowalczyk said. “I thought our guard rebounding in the first half was atrocious, and in the second half it was better.”
Toledo dominated the boards in the second half by a 22-12 margin thanks to six by Zach Garber, five by Luke Knapke, and four by Williams.
A 9-3 spurt by the Rockets early in the second half gave them a 40-29 lead with 17:22 on the clock, and Toledo kept pulling away, leading by 23 points before settling on the final margin.
Navigato, who started in place of Taylor, had a solid game. He scored in double figures for the second straight game after netting 14 at Marshall, but on Saturday he added six rebounds, two assists, and two steals.
“He didn’t make a lot of shots, but he moved the ball well [on offense],” Kowalczyk said of Navigato. “He defended well, and he got six defensive rebounds for us.”
Toledo allowed the Lions to make just 37.7 percent of their shots from the floor, including just 33.3 percent of their 3-point attempts. And Southeastern Louisiana turned the ball over 18 points as the Rockets collected a season-best nine steals.
“We played good team defense and were in passing gaps the whole night,” said Lauf, who tied his career-best with four steals. “Nine steals is a lot of steals for us, and we were active.”
Toledo’s Jonathan Williams tries to drive past Southeast Louisiana’s Dominic Nelson during the Rockets’ victory. BLADE/ANDY MORRISON