Toledo rallied from a 12-point deficit late in regulation, then dominated the overtime to secure a thrilling 96-85 victory over Western Michigan before a jubilant crowd of 6,912 at Savage Arena Saturday night.
Junior guard Justin Drummond paced the Rockets with a career-high 28 points and eight rebounds. Four other Rockets scored in double figures. Junior guard Julius Brown notched a double-double with 18 points and 10 assists.
The victory pulled Toledo (24-5, 12-4 MAC) into a tie with the Broncos (19-9, 12-4) for first place in the West Division of the Mid-American Conference. Both teams are tied with Buffalo for the best record in the league heading into the final week of regular season conference play. Toledo clinched no worse than a No. 3 seed in the MAC Tournament, and can earn the top seed with wins in its final two games.
The victory also helped Toledo tie a 74-year-old school record for wins in a season (set in 1939-40), though late in the game that feat looked improbable. Trailing 75-63 with three minutes left in regulation, the Rockets went on 14-0 run and took their first lead of the contest on a pair of free throws by freshman guard Jonathan Williams with 48 seconds left. Fourteen seconds later, Tucker Hammond tied the score, 77-77, with two foul shots. Toledo held the ball for the final shot but Brown missed a 27-footer. Western got the rebound but Ritchie's desperation heave was off the mark, sending the game into overtime.
The Rockets dominated the extra period, thanks to six points by Brown and Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon got it going with a layup, followed by a three-pointer by Pearson. Brown cut the lead to four, 82-78, with a free throw but the Broncos would get no closer. Pairs of free throws by Brown and Weatherspoon extended the lead to eight. Moments later, a Pearson dunk with just under a minute effectively sealed WMU's fate.
Just as they did in their 87-76 win over Toledo at Kalamazoo on Jan. 8, the Broncos came roaring out of the gates in the opening 20 minutes. WMU shot 17-of-26 (65.4%) from the floor in the first half, including a sizzling 8-of-12 (66.7%) from three-point range. The Rockets, on the other hand, made just 11 of their 33 shots (.333) in the opening 20 minutes.
Senior guard David Brown, who led all scorers with 29 points, scorched the nets for 18 first-half points for Western, connecting on 4-of-6 three-pointers. WMU scored the first five points of the game, then extended the lead to 17-7 on an Austin Ritchie three-pointer with 12:44 left in the first half that forced UT coach Tod Kowalczyk to call timeout.
The Rockets rallied to cut the lead to three, 29-26, on a jumper by Jonathan Williams with 6:24 left. The rest of the opening period belonged to WMU, however, as the Broncos outscored UT 16-7 after that to enter the locker room with a 45-33 advantage.
Western maintained their lead throughout the second half, this time with senior center Shayne Whittington (25 points, 13 rebounds) doing most of the damage. A free throw by Brown with 14:47 to play cut the WMU margin to six, 50-44. But WMU answered with a 12-5 run that included four consecutive close-range buckets by Whittington. A three-point play by Brown capped the Bronco run to give them a 65-52 lead with 7:04 to play.
Sophomore center Nathan Boothe then came alive with three baskets in an 8-2 Toledo run that cut the lead to 67-60 at a media timeout break with 5:18 to play. Drummond hit a pair of free throws coming out of the timeout to trim the lead to five, 67-62. But on its next possession, Western's Connar Tava was able to come up with a critical loose ball off a missed shot, converting it into a three-point play with 4:16 left.
Things looked grim for UT at this point, but the Rockets suddenly came to life. Boothe pumped life into the Rocket crowd with a three-pointer that cut the lead to 75-69 with 2:34 left. Seconds later, Brown hit a fastbreak layup to cut the margin to four, 75-71. Drummond hit a pair of layups, the second on an offensive rebound, to knot the score at 75-75. The teams traded free throws in the final minute, setting up the overtime session.
The Rockets travel to Central Michigan on Tuesday before closing out the regular season at home vs. Eastern Michigan next Saturday. If Toledo wins both of those games, it will clinch the No. 1 seed in the MAC Tournament by virtue of holding the tie-breaker over WMU and Buffalo,