TUSCALOOSA, Ala. - The University of Toledo ran into the wrong basketball team in the wrong place at the wrong time last night in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Alabama's Crimson Tide (23-10), which improved to 17-1 at Coleman Coliseum this season, appeared to return to mid-season form based on its 79-69 victory over the Rockets.
The Tide entered the NIT having lost five of its past six games, squandering an NCAA tournament bid after a 20-5 start and a No.14 national ranking.
But that was not the team Toledo (22-11) and coach Stan Joplin played last night, at least in the first half when the young Tide, with its five sophomore starters and freshman sixth man, shot out to a 24-point lead that proved insurmountable for the Rockets.
“Obviously we're disappointed,” Joplin said. “I don't think we played that well. But give credit to Alabama; they're so athletic. We knew it was going to be tough and we wanted to get them in a half-court game as much as we possibly could and keep them off the boards.
“But in the first half, they went on one of those streaks. We knew they could score points in a bunch, and that's what they did.”
UT's hope coming in was that Alabama would continue its late-season slide.
Joplin's list of necessities on the court included keeping the Tide off the boards and out of their potent transition game. These wishes weren't granted. Alabama outrebounded the Rockets 42-32 and thrived off the fast break.
That's when the Tide began to roll.
Alabama delivered its knockout blow over the next nine minutes, outscoring the Rockets 27-8 to take a commanding 35-15 lead 6:50 before halftime on Terrance Meade's jumper from the left corner.
“We were trying to go too much one-on-one instead of passing the ball around,” Joplin said. “We were a little too quick taking the jump shot and we got a little bit discouraged and stopped being aggressive and they took advantage of the situation.”
The lead grew to 43-19 on a Rod Grizzard tip-in 4:19 before the break.
The 6-8 Grizzard, an All-Southeastern Conference first-teamer, led the Tide with 22 points and 12 rebounds.
Freshman Gerald Wallace, a high-flying 6-7 substitute, added 13 points, including three big dunks.
Travis Stinnett and Erwin Dudley added 11 and 10 points, respectively, for Alabama.
Toledo senior Greg Stempin ended his outstanding college career with 17 points and eight rebounds.
Stempin finished with 1,705 points trailing only Ken Epperson (2,016 points, 1981-85) and Craig Thames (1,964, 1992-96).
Rory Jones came off the bench to add 15 points for UT, and Nick Moore contributed 12.
“In the second half I think I took the ball to the basket a lot stronger,” said Stempin, who scored 16 of his 17 points in the game's final 23:20. “That was the big key. I was just a little too weak in the first half.”
“I don't think we've been down that much this year in the first half,” Jones said. “We didn't come out with the type of intensity we needed. In the second half we tried to pick it up, but it was too late.”
Moore's 3-pointer four seconds before halftime took the Rockets to the break down 50-33.
An 11-5 Rockets run - keyed by seniors Stempin, Robierre Cullars and Craig Rodgers - trimmed the deficit to 61-48 on a Rodgers lay-up with 12:58 remaining. The surge stalled briefly with Alabama mixing two field goals between four Toledo turnovers.
“We're playing good basketball right now, and our defense is good and we're getting out and running,” said Alabama coach Mark Gottfried, who liked at least half of his team's game. “We just need to sustain that for a full 40 minutes.
“Our defense is creating fast-break opportunities and in the second half that's what we didn't have.”
Two Moore treys sandwiched around a Stempin dunk on a lob from Jones put the resilient Rockets within 10 points (66-56) with 6:55 to play, but that was as close as Toledo could get.
“They're the most athletic team we've faced,” Joplin said. “We felt we could get back in the game and we did.
“But we felt we had to be 10 or 15 points better than this team, and tonight we weren't. In the second half we did a better job. I liked the effort the players gave. They didn't quit. We just lost out to a better team.”