For 25 minutes last night, lowly Eastern Michigan was able to battle the University of Toledo men's basketball team toe-to-toe - the 13th-seeded Eagles trailed by just one point.
From that point on, though, the fourth-seeded Rockets applied the hammerlock.
Toledo went on a 13-0 run over the next six minutes to pull away from the pesky Eagles en route to its sixth straight win - 67-43 before 4,329 fans at Savage Hall.
The Rockets (21-9) advanced to play fifth-seeded Ohio (18-10) at 2 p.m. Thursday in the MAC Tournament quarterfinals at Gund Arena in Cleveland. The Bobcats whipped 12th-seeded Buffalo 101-78 last night.
“We weren't as focused as we should have been in the first half,'' Toledo's Greg Stempin said. “You have to give them credit - they played great defense the first half.''
Toledo, which led 28-25 at intermission, outscored the Eagles (3-25) 39-18 in the second half. Eastern Michigan, which made 11 of 18 shots (61.1 percent) from the field in the first half, managed just six points in the first 10:35 of the second half.
“They did a great job of jumping on us and creating a little space for themselves in the second half,'' EMU coach Jim Boone said. “They just smothered us defensively.''
The 43 points were the fewest allowed by Toledo in a MAC Tournament game, and tied its season-low for fewest points allowed.
Eastern Michigan, which ended the year with eight straight losses, shot 43.2 percent for the game (19 of 44). The Rockets have not allowed an opponent to shoot better than 47 percent in 10 of the past 11 contests.
Toledo, which had beaten Eastern Michigan twice already this season, played about as poor a first half as it has all season, shooting just 39.3 percent (11 of 28) from the field and 28.6 percent (2 of 7) from 3-point range.
Their two leading scorers, Stempin and point guard Terry Reynolds, were a combined 2-of-8 from the floor, with both baskets by Stempin. Stempin's tip-in at the buzzer gave Toledo its biggest lead of the first half at three.
Reserves Rory Jones, Milo Kirsh and Albert Wilson combined for 15 first-half points. Stempin led UT with eight points, but was just 4-of-8 from the free-throw line.
C.J. Grantham led all scorers with 10 first-half points on 4-of-5 shooting for the Eagles.
“Eastern Michigan shortened the game in the first half,'' Toledo coach Stan Joplin said. “They worked the clock and made us impatient and we forced some things. You've got to give Eastern Michigan credit. They had to do something (to try to win) and it affected us.''
Stempin finished with 16 points (5-of-8 shooting) and 12 rebounds for his 28th career double-double and his ninth of the season. He had torched the Eagles for 26 points the last time they visited Savage Hall 13 days ago.
“I just felt like I couldn't get free out there,'' said Stempin, just the fourth player in school history to have more than 1,500 career points and 800 rebounds. “They were double-teaming me in the post.''
Kirsh had his second strong game in a row, finishing with 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Guard Nick Moore added 10 points for Toledo, which has an RPI of 72 compared to Eastern's 309 among 318 Division I-A schools.
“If you look at the last two times we played them, they played us pretty even the first half of each game,'' Kirsh said. “And then we ended up going up on them big in the second half and winning pretty easily.''
Reynolds, named the MAC's West Division player of the week earlier in the day, is a heavy favorite for MAC freshman of the year honors today. He finished with just nine points against the Eagles, after pumping in 29 in the regular-season finale at Ball State Saturday.
The Rockets, who shot 50 percent from the floor (23 of 26), improved to 2-3 in MAC Tournament openers under Joplin.
Eastern Michigan, led by Ryan Prillman's 13 points, committed 19 turnovers to Toledo's 12. The Rockets outrebounded the Eagles 31-25.
It's on to Cleveland for Toledo, which beat Ohio 66-53 on Jan 31 at Savage Hall.
“That will be a tough game for us,'' Kirsh said.
“I think we have to win the MAC Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament,'' Stempin said.
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