The UT men’s basketball team scorched the Cleveland State Vikings and North Alabama Lions to extend their winning streak to five games over the past weekend.
The first match of the two-game slate featured a Lions team that was poised for a big road upset, however, the Lions got a heavy dose of the two Rocket big men, Luke Knapke and Nate Navigato.
Knapke and Navigato combined for 35 in a complete performance, resulting in a Rocket win. The Rockets started the first half slowly, but built a commanding lead on the Lions by halftime. A key stretch toward the end of the half was the difference maker, when Navigato, Knapke and Jaelan Sanford hit consecutive threes to vault the Rockets lead to 14.
This, accompanied with stifling defense, allowed the Rockets to sit comfortably for the rest of the game. The Rockets’ lead grew to 18 almost instantly in the second half after big plays from Willie Jackson and Knapke. From there, it was smooth sailing for the Rockets.
The Rockets cruised to an 80-59 victory against the visitors. Knapke pieced together a great stat line with 18 points, six rebounds and four assists. Navigato reined in 17 points, which included five three-pointers.
Other noteworthy contributors were Marreon Jackson, who tallied seven assists, and Willie Jackson, who notched another double-double this season with an 11-point, 12-rebound game.
Next up on the slate for the Rockets were the Vikings from Cleveland State. The Vikings, like the Lions, were poised for an upset. The Vikings, however, appeared able to pull it off.
The first half was a back-and-forth, see-saw like affair with both teams trading blows and changing leads. This game trend continued until a monumental run by the Rockets.
The run was 15-0 and the Vikings came out of it shell-shocked, unable to recover. The short-term result was a 41-29 Rocket lead at the intermission. The long-term result proved much more malevolent for the Vikings.
The second half ensued, playing out the same way the first half began, back and forth. The Vikings momentarily shook off the first half Rocket spurt to cut their deficit to three after a Tyree Appleby three-point play.
Sanford and the Rockets stayed true though, and pushed their lead back to double digits before taking the game, 80-67.
After the dust settled, Sanford led the charge with 20 points on 21 shots albeit. Navigato followed up his strong showing versus the Lions with another great performance, netting 19 points.
Willie Jackson put up another strong double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. Jackson has been arguably the most consistent player on the court for Coach Kowalczyk’s 7-1 squad.
Speaking of the 7-1 record, it’s the best start the Rockets have had since 2013-14.
“That’s a great win, and the reason why, and I told our players this, that is very uncharacteristic Rocket basketball; we’re one of the best shooting teams in the country,” Vikings coach Kowalczyk said.
The Rockets shot 39 percent from the floor. They will finish up their third straight home game against Detroit Mercy 7 p.m., Dec. 5 at Savage Arena.