DeKALB, Ill. - Not even a new building could change the University of Toledo's luck against Northern Illinois.
The Rockets lost at NIU yesterday for the 11th time in their last 15 trips, falling 85-75 in a Mid-American Conference game before 5,272 fans in the brand new Convocation Center.
With the loss, Toledo (11-15, 5-11 MAC West) clinched its first losing season in six years under coach Stan Joplin. The Rockets also were swept by the Huskies (15-11, 11-5) for the first time in 20 years and now must play on the road in the first round of the conference tournament in eight days.
“I don't know if frustrating is the right word to describe this season,” Joplin said. “But it's been very disappointing, because some players didn't improve as much as I thought they would. We haven't played well since the Michigan State game [on Dec. 30].
“When it rains, it pours. It's one of those years where we woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”
The Rockets are 4-11 since beating then No. 14 Michigan State on the next-to-last day of 2002. They also are 3-9 on the road since then, including 1-7 in the conference.
“This losing is starting to get old,” junior guard Keith Triplett said. “But we can't give up yet. We still have two games left, plus the conference tournament.”
Toledo led NIU 26-16 with 5:45 to play in the first half. But then the Rockets committed seven turnovers in their next 10 possessions and the Huskies finished with a 13-0 run to take a 29-26 halftime lead.
“The first half I thought we played pretty good defensively” Joplin said. “But we played exactly the opposite in the second half.”
NIU didn't let up to start the final 20 minutes, going on a 6-0 run to build a 35-26 edge in the first 1:17.
“Our defense really picked it up during those two runs,” said NIU coach Rob Judson, whose team snapped a two-game losing streak.
“They had that big run to end the first half and then another run to start the second, and we just could never get back into the game after that,” Triplett said.
Triplett, who led all scorers with 29 points, certainly tried to get the Rockets back into the game. But even though he scored 17 of his points in the final 20 minutes, Toledo could never get any closer than five points.
“In the second half, they scored too many points  for us to win,” Joplin said.
Triplett, Nick Moore (17 points) and Sammy Villegas (14) combined for 60 of UT's 75 points, but they were a combined 20-for-45 from the floor, including 11-for-28 from 3-point range.
“It's kind of been that way all year - our guards have been the strength of our team,” Joplin said. “But it puts a lot of pressure on them to perform at a high level all the time. It would be nice if we could get some help from our big people.”
Triplett was 8-of-16 from the floor including 5-of-8 from 3-point range. He hit 8 of 11 free throws.
Toledo, which hosts Ball State Wednesday, got just 15 points from its beleaguered front-line yesterday. The Rockets lost Kareem Milson to a back injury late in the first half and Milo Kirsh was benched for a brief time after arguing with Joplin.
With his front-line paper-thin, Joplin had no choice but to play A.J. Shellabarger and Ricardo Thomas in the second half. Shellabarger and Thomas were held out of the Buffalo game Tuesday and the first half yesterday for what Joplin termed “a lack of effort.”
Jay Bates led the Huskies with 18 points. Marcus Smallwood and P.J. Smith had 17 each. Smallwood and Jamel Staten had 11 rebounds apiece as NIU out-rebounded UT 39-25.
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