CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Tod Kowalczyk told his team that they were the better team. He wasn’t crazy for saying so, although there are those who would say he was, but his Toledo team proved it on the court Thursday night when they walked out of Conte Forum with a 95-92 win over Boston College.
“I told the guys in a timeout, we’re the better team,” said Kowalczyk, now in his fourth season at the school. “I thought we played that way coming down the stretch.”
His veteran team bought into it all along, and on the court, they were able to hang around before taking the lead for good in the final minute at the end of a 14-2 run.
“We believed that we could win the game from the start,” said junior guard Justin Drummond, who scored 20 points on 6-9 shooting and started the decisive run with a three-pointer coming out of a timeout. “In the locker room, we thought we were going home 1-0. Coach gave us that extra boost.”
Guards are key in college basketball, and Toledo has the guards to compete as all three have all-conference potential. They got a lot of what they wanted offensively on Thursday night, and that as much as anything allowed them to hang around. Julius Brown and Drummond, in particular, got to the hoop often, and Brown showed his playmaking ability as he handed out ten assists with just one turnover to go with a game-high 23 points.
Rian Pearson didn’t have a big game offensively with just nine points, but he can score and earned his stripes on the night with the effort guarding BC’s Olivier Hanlan. While Hanlan scored 18 points and handed out six assists, he was never a big factor on the evening. That Pearson didn’t score in double figures while four teammates did is a big sign for this team. He led them in scoring last season and was third in the Mid-American Conference in that category, and it’s clear that this team has several viable scoring options and has matured.
“I think (Pearson’s) confidence was a little bit low offensively, and he expended so much energy guarding Hanlan that we didn’t go back to him or run a whole lot of sets for him,” said Kowalczyk.
They had help in the frontcourt, largely from athletic forward J.D. Weatherspoon, who transferred from Ohio State, and sophomore Nathan Boothe, who had 17 points. Zach Garber also gave them a nice lift in the first half off the bench. Weatherspoon fits this team well as another slasher, which is what the three guards primarily are. That was shown by the Rockets taking just six three-pointers all evening after taking 13 in the season opener.
With the way games are being called, Toledo could thrive this season as a team full of slashers. They can get by defenders and create contact, and if players adjust to less contact, that will help them, too.
But Thursday was also their first game against a Division I opponent on the season, and it showed at the defensive end. The Rockets actually allowed Hillsdale to shoot 53 percent from the floor in their exhibition game, so this wasn’t the first time they appeared to be challenged defensively. In that game, they squeaked out a one-point win in overtime. Boston College shot 51 percent against them, but the Rockets at least did well with the three-point line as BC was 7-23 from long range. Still, allowing a team to shoot 51 percent in a game that wasn’t full of transition chances isn’t a way to win a lot of games.
And as if that wasn’t enough, with a four-point lead late, Pearson fouled BC’s Patrick Heckmann, who completed the three-point play, meaning BC could keep it as a one-possession game after free throws. Then Weatherspoon fouled Heckmann putting up a three-pointer with the Eagles down by three and 8.8 seconds left. Heckmann missed the third free throw, however, and the Rockets were able to hang on in the end despite the mistakes.
Kowalczyk said they are proponents of fouling with a three-point lead late, but he didn’t want to foul a guy in the act of shooting since it would mean a chance to tie at the foul line. He’ll live with the mistakes since they pulled it out, but that could cost them in a later game. Had Heckmann made the last free throw, we might well be talking about an overtime game, and while Toledo had momentum it was hardly a guarantee that they would carry it over into an extra session.
Toledo has a team with experience and good class balance. They went 15-13 last season and return four starters, and they appear to play to their strengths well. This win could help catapult them early, as their non-conference slate isn’t overwhelming but is hardly full of cupcakes. They head to Detroit for the 2K Sports Classic subregional that includes Stony Brook, host Detroit and Florida Atlantic, and later has trips to Robert Morris and Kansas. This is a team that was already confident that they can contend in the MAC, and pulling out a win like Thursday’s can only help in that regard.