YPSILANTI, Mich. - Coach Stan Joplin has guided the University of Toledo to a first or second-place finish in the Mid-American Conference's West Division each of the last four years.
Toledo was picked to finish third this season in the preseason poll conducted by the MAC News Media Association.
But the Rockets' have been mired in a free-fall since the new year began and they lost yet another close decision last night, falling 76-72 to Eastern Michigan before 4,055 fans at the Convocation Center.
Toledo (9-11, 3-7 MAC) finds itself mired in last place in the West standings. The Rockets also remained winless on the road in conference play at 0-5, and they are just 2-7 since the beginning of January.
Of those seven losses, the Rockets have been in a position to win six of those games, but have lost all seven. UT has led twice, been within five points or less in three other games and tied in another - all in the final seven minutes.
“I'm not faulting the effort,” Joplin said. “We're kind of snake-bitten. We just need something positive to happen. And the only thing positive that can happen is a win. I think that would give the players the shot in the arm that they desperately need.”
Last night, the Rockets actually led 35-34 at halftime, which appeared to be a good omen, because they had been 8-0 when leading at the intermission.
That lead didn't hold up this time.
Toledo and EMU were tied at 59-59 with 8:05 remaining in the second half. The Rockets got within three points twice in the final 1:24 but couldn't get any closer as the Eagles (10-9, 4-6 MAC) snapped a seven-game losing streak against Toledo.
“Tonight was a gutty performance for us,” EMU coach Jim Boone said. “Frankly, we did not play very well.”
Toledo, which hosts rival Bowling Green Tuesday, did get a gutty performance from 6-9 junior center A.J. Shellabarger, who scored a career-high 17 points and matched his career high with 10 rebounds before fouling out with 3:40 to play. Shellabarger, who had not scored in double figures all season, made seven of eight shots in 18 minutes.
His previous career high in points was 13, set against Ball State last Feb. 16. His previous high for rebounds was 10, set against Siena in December of 2001.
“I just took what the defense gave me, pretty much,” he said. “My teammates got me the ball and all I had to do was finish. That was the easy part.”
Toledo's Keith Triplett also had a big second half scoring 13 of his team-high 19 points. He also finished with nine boards despite sitting out the final 10 minutes of the opening half with two fouls.
The Rockets' Nick Moore, who ranks second in the MAC in 3-point field goals, was held without one for the first time in 33 games. Moore finished with 11 points, as did Sammy Villegas.
However, EMU got 18 points each from Markus Austin and Steve Pettyjohn and 15 from Michael Ross to improve to 9-2 at home.
The score was tied on six occasions and the lead changed hands 16 times. Toledo shot 43.1 percent (28-of-65) from the field and 34.8 (8-of-23) from 3-point range. The Rockets outscored EMU in bench points (31-9), in the paint (32-22) and in points off turnovers (29-22), yet has only another close loss to show for it.
“It's not becoming a habit at all,” Shellabarger said, “We know we can win. We know what we can do. We know what we're capable of doing. We've just got to come out and do it and play to our potential.”