Justin Drummond scored 24 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to help Toledo to a 77-68 win over Northern Illinois Wednesday night. All four other Rockets starters scored at least nine points as Toledo moved to 4-1 in MAC play and reclaimed first place alone in the West division.
There were a lot of encouraging elements in this game for Northern Illinois (1-4 MAC) and its fans. The Huskies jumped out to an early lead, paced by Travon Baker's deuce and subsequent triple that established a 7-4 NIU advantage. Baker hit another 3 to put the Huskies up 12-8, as the Rockets countered with broad offensive contributions.
Nathan Boothe contributed an old-fashioned 3-point play to tie the game at 13, but Aksel Bolin responded with a triple to put NIU back up. Toledo took its first lead of the game at 17-16 behind a pair of Drummond free throws, then watched him hit consecutive three pointers to extend the lead to 28-22. NIU would give a game effort from there on out, but never retake the lead.
Toledo didn't have much trouble getting the ball into the lane all night, and moments later, Drummond penetrated to 5 feet from the basket, spun, and dished to an oncoming J.D. Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon threw down a massive, two-handed, rim-rocking dunk, made incredibly more enjoyable via online streaming with the Commodore 64 quality, rock-em-sock-em robot graphic that followed. Next up: free pencil and little books of paper giveaways for make-your-own flip graphic night at Savage Hall!
Toledo led at halftime 34-28, but again the Huskies were feisty in keeping the game close for much of the night. Travon Baker poured in another 3 pointer early in the second half to keep it at a 7 point margin, 38-31. Julius Brown had been fairly quiet in the first half, but the first of several second half threes re-established a 10-point Rocket lead.
The Huskies were not shy about pounding the ball inside to try to slow pace and establish offense in the second half. Jordan Threloff got a lot of touches and responded with one of his strongest offensive games of the year, with 14 points. A Threloff bucket was followed by back-and-forth action with foul shot opportunities on both ends, and Northern Illinois worked the deficit back to 53-47.
Brown later drilled a deep three from the left wing to stretch the margin to 58-47. As pace picked up on consecutive possessions, NIU found themselves within 7 after Travon Baker's last 3 of the game, down only 61-54. The Huskies had the ball down 62-54 after a made foul shot with a little momentum, but any hope of a comeback vanished with incredibly sloppy turnovers on their next two possessions. Again Brown struck with a pull-up long 3 from the right wing off a high screen, and Toledo had a 69-56 lead. The Rockets closed it out with a 77-68 final margin of victory.
This was a well-played, well-officiated game that highlighted strengths of both clubs. Toledo got the win it needed and never really let NIU all the way back in the game despite a very solid effort by the heavy underdogs. The Rockets' attack has been balanced all season as it was tonight, and special note should be taken of the fact that they outrebounded the Huskies. Coming off of the beating of frontcourt-strong Akron, Toledo fans should be especially encouraged by the emergence of real strength among their big men.
While the Huskies lost again, they didn't allow the kind of separation that Buffalo or Ohio achieved in the second halves of the contests over the last two weeks. Travon Baker is coming on strong at guard and appears poised to be a force in the league, and a potential scoring complement to Dontel Highsmith for the next two years pending Highsmith's return from injury. And in the shorter term, Jordan Threloff and Darrell Bowie (16 points) had strong games up front as the team avoided the kind of offensive drought that has plagued them.
The schedule eventually lightens for the optimistic Huskies, but not yet this weekend, as they host Buffalo. Toledo hosts Kent State on Sunday evening.