Feb. 20—The rest of the country is starting to see what the Mid-American Conference already knows.
The Toledo Rockets are a force.
In front of a nationally-televised audience on ESPN2, UT shot its way to a gutsy 80-70 win at Buffalo Friday, ending a five-game losing streak to the Bulls and winning at Alumni Arena for the first time since the Obama Administration.
“Neither team likes each other,” said Toledo senior guard Marreon Jackson, who was winless against Buffalo until Friday. “For us to come out with a victory is very big for our guys.”
The game featured the top two scoring offenses in the MAC, and it was Toledo (18-6, 13-3) who ruled the night.
Buffalo (9-7, 7-5) owns the nation’s sixth-best 3-point field goal percentage defense, limiting opponents to 27.2 percent shooting. The Rockets glanced at that stat and rolled their eyes, going 10 of 22 from 3.
And that was after missing their first five attempts.
“We’ve been doing it all season,” Jackson said. “We’re a 3-point shooting team. We count by threes. We just do a great job of setting each other up in the best possible position.”
Toledo’s effectiveness and cohesion were apparent again — a season-long theme — with 16 assists on 28 baskets. An active defense also took root, with the Rockets scoring 27 points off of 16 turnovers.
An underdog for the first time since Jan. 4 — 12 games ago — Toledo played angry, aggressive, and motivated.
“I thought our guys from start to finish played with an edge,” UT coach Tod Kowalczyk said.
But the dominant storyline was their resilience. Just when it looked like the Rockets were taking over, the game turned on an innocuous technical foul, fueling a 14-0 Buffalo run and a six-point Toledo deficit.
Setric Millner, Jr., posterized Jayvon Graves on a ferocious dunk at the 15:56 mark of the second half, putting UT in front 48-40. As Graves was on the court, Ryan Rollins knelt down in his face and was given a technical for taunting.
What seemed like an irrelevant play in an impending Toledo win became a turning point, as Buffalo’s 14 consecutive points coincided with a five-plus minute Toledo scoreless drought.
But Jackson, UT’s engine for four seasons, put the Rockets on his back, scoring the first seven points (and nine overall) in a game-changing 12-0 run. The final result was a familiar one: Toledo’s 10th conference win by double digits.
“I just felt like we needed something from somebody, and the opportunity presented itself for me,” Jackson said.
He finished with 20 points on eight-of-13 shooting, six rebounds, six assists, and four steals in a virtuoso performance, passing UT legend Steve Mix for eighth all-time on the program’s career scoring list.
“During winning time, he certainly stepped up,” Kowalczyk said. “It showed that he’s one of the best players in this conference. That’s what seniors do, and that’s what really good players do.”
Rollins, the MAC’s top freshman, broke his slump with 18 points, Millner had a season-high-tying 17 points and seven rebounds, and Spencer Littleson scored 13 points. The Rockets shot 46.7 percent from the field.
“Seth was great. Marreon was really good. Ryan Rollins was good. Spencer Littleson just did what he does,” Kowalczyk said. “We had a lot of key guys step up.”
After scoring the game’s first four points, Toledo was outscored 11-2 and was in an offensive funk most of the first half. Buffalo corralled rebounds like a three-year-old in an Easter egg hunt but never led by double digits, squandering an opportunity to distance itself from the Rockets.
When UT ended the half on a 16-2 run, staking a 40-32 halftime lead, Buffalo’s failures were magnified.
“This is a team that’s capable of big spurts, simply because we can score so much at different positions,” Kowalczyk said.
The Bulls, who lead the nation with 43 rebounds per game, outrebounded UT 53-30 on the night, including 25-8 on the offensive glass, contributing to 22 second-chance points. Despite the overwhelming rebounding advantage, Buffalo couldn’t produce buckets with any sort of consistency, as UT held an opponent under 40 percent shooting for the second straight game.
Buffalo was just two of 14 from beyond the arc. In UT’s last two trips to Alumni Arena, the Bulls averaged 107 points per game.
An outside chance at the MAC title was extinguished, as Buffalo lost for the first time in four games after winning its previous three by a combined 66 points.
“They’re phenomenal at rebounding,” Kowalczyk said. “They’re just that big and that athletic. I knew we weren’t going to outrebound them. If we could just keep it close and not turn the ball over, I knew we’d win.”
A raucous celebration took place in three parts — inside the visiting locker room, on the bus ride to the hotel, and at the Buffalo Marriott Niagara on UB’s campus.
The ride home Sunday morning should be sunnier amid an infinite gray landscape. And a week off — UT next plays Feb. 27 against Western Michigan — will be merrier as the Rockets keep a firm grasp on first place in the MAC.
First Published February 19, 2021, 11:43pm
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