Final Minutes Swing in Favor of Toledo at Western Michigan
Saturday marked the first of several must-win games for teams battling to clear their way into the MAC tournament when the Toledo Rockets (12-14) came to Kalamazoo, MI in a face-off with the Western Michigan Broncos (11-15).
Each squad looked to gain a victory in what was sure to be a close contest. Toledo won the previous meeting in January 67-59 and things followed that track again on Saturday. Toledo came into the game with a strategy that seems to be at the heart of beating the Broncos and helped bring them the victory a month earlier: Stop Michael Flowers.
The junior guard, who recently eclipsed 1000 career points a week ago at EMU, is the Broncos most consistent scoring threat and part of a powerful inside-out offensive duo with redshirt junior, Brandon Johnson, who have each topped 400 points so far this season (double that of any other scorer on the team).
Toledo’s strategy seemed to be working in the early going, keeping things stuck in a back and forth contest that had 12 lead changes in just the first half. Western was able to gain small leads, but the defensive focus paid to Flowers kept him off the scoreboard much of the afternoon and he finished with just 7-points.
On the other end, Toledo finished with five players in double figures and were led by Willie Jackson (19 pts & 10 reb) who netted a double-double and passed Luke Knapke in the scoring column with several late-game free throw visits. Spencer Littleson also made things interesting for the Rockets, engaging in a game-within-the-game tiff with Flowers that got chippy as the game went on. Littleson also made an impact on the offensive end with two steals that led to back to back breakaway dunks.
Things were not without a glimmer of hope for WMU, however, as junior guard Rafael Cruz Jr. stepped up in a big way in just his second start of the season. Cruz led the Broncos on Saturday with a career-high against Division 1 opponents of 21 points. His biggest moments of the afternoon came when the Broncos needed him most. Cruz hit back to back 3-point buckets to pull Western within striking distance in the final minute. Toledo was able to hold the Broncos at bay with solid shooting from the charity stripe and stretch the lead out one last time with a final score of 68-59.
The Toledo Rockets improve to 12-14 as they look to hit .500 before season’s end and Western Michigan drops to 11-16. Western closes the season with games against Ball State, Northern Illinois, senior night against Eastern Michigan and regular season finale at Central Michigan.
The Broncos will need Cruz to continue his ascent into a primary scoring option if Western Michigan is going to get back on track this season.