Toledo guard Jonathan Williams, left, works under the basket against Eastern Michigan forward Baylee Steele. BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH
The University of Toledo turned in one of its best defensive efforts of the season and was able to pick apart Eastern Michigan’s trademark zone defense in a much-needed 73-57 win on Tuesday at Savage Arena.
The Rockets (12-12, 5-6 Mid-American Conference) held Eastern Michigan to 39.1 percent shooting and moved the ball to beat the 2-3 zone, recording a season-high 23 assists on 28 made field goals.
In doing so, Toledo snapped a three-game losing streak and moved even with Eastern Michigan (13-11, 5-6 MAC) in the MAC West Standings.
IN PICTURES: Toledo 73, Eastern Michigan 57
“After four out of five on the road, it was a much-needed victory, especially after a double-overtime game and a one-point game last week,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “Our backs were against the wall and our toughness, our urgency, and our togetherness showed it.”
Five players scored in double figures for Toledo, led by a 16-point effort off the bench from Nate Navigato. Jordan Lauf added a career-high 15 points, Jonathan Williams scored 14, Jaelan Sanford had 12, and Steve Taylor, Jr. tallied 10.
“We worked on moving the ball around and getting great shots,” Lauf said. “We wanted to give up good shots to get great shots. We did a really good job of that today, moving the ball and finding the right guys.”
Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy, a former Syracuse assistant, relies on a 2-3 zone that utilizes the length and athleticism of his players.
The Rockets were able to dissect the gaps in the defense and shot well from the outside when left open, hitting 10-of-20 shots form 3-point range.
“I will argue with anybody that that’s the best zone in the country,” Kowalczyk said. “They are tremendous at it and it’s all they do. They won’t play a possession of man all year. You can’t simulate their length and their quickness and their aggressiveness.”
Ty Toney scored 13 points and Willie Mangum IV added 11 points to lead Eastern Michigan.
Toledo limited James Thompson IV, Eastern Michigan’s star big man, to just nine points, as Taylor played just eight minutes in the first half with three early fouls.
“I’m proud of our defense inside,” Kowalczyk said. “The game plan was to have Steve [Taylor] guard Thompson, but with his foul trouble, Luke [Knapke] had to step up and Nate [Navigato] had to step up and they did a great job guarding him. He’s obviously a great player. Our perimeter defense was better tonight. We were in better gaps and we just did a better job with the fundamentals of our defense.”
Toledo held Eastern Michigan to just 3-of-15 shooting from the 3-point line, including 0-of-6 in the first half.
“We were aggressive and we were talking and we did everything that we needed to do to be successful,” Lauf said of the defensive effort.
Both teams struggled to score in the first half as Toledo led 26-22 at halftime despite committing 11 turnovers.
The Rockets cleaned up their play after halftime and scored 47 second-half points and led by as many as 19 points.
Toledo had lost its previous three games by a combined seven points and with a win on Tuesday is still well within the conference race. The Rockets are now one of nine teams in the MAC separated by one game in the standings at either 5-6 or 6-5.
“Coaches will tell you that you have wins that you are upset with and losses that you feel good about your team and how they compete,” Kowalczyk said. “The Ball State loss was one of those. We lost by one, down a man [Jonathan Williams] that averages 21 points a game. We go to Bowling Green and had many opportunities to win the game in an unbelievable college basketball game. We certainly didn’t get down on our guys and we didn’t get down on each other. This league is really competitive and we just have to keep fighting to the end.”
Contact Brian Buckey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6110.
UT guard Jordan Lauf (25) battles Eastern Michigan forward Baylee Steele, left, and center James Thompson IV for a rebound. Lauf helped out the UT attack by scoring 15 points. BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH