The University of Toledo had more than a few opportunities to put Akron away early last night and coast to another Mid-American Conference win.
The Rockets (11-3, 5-1 MAC) couldn t find the knockout punch until the closing minutes, however, and won 87-79.
There was an inherent danger in allowing a team to “hang around” for too long and always remain within striking distance. The Zips (7-6, 1-4) never led, but it wasn t until the closing moments that the Rockets had this one secured.
“No question, we kept leaving the door open,” Toledo coach Stan Joplin said. “I thought a couple of times the door was about to shut and we didn t do it, and they d get a four-point swing. Every time we were ready to shut the door, it came open again. Good teams don t do that. We need to work on that.”
Keith Triplett led Toledo with 24 points, while Sammy Villegas had 18. The MAC s leading scorer, Derrick Tarver, led Akron with 29 points.
Toledo led by 10 in the first four minutes, then allowed Akron to quickly get back within three.
After building the lead back to nine a little over midway through the first half, the Rockets saw Akron tie it in another quick spurt.
The trend continued in the second half as Toledo saw the Zips cut the lead to 46-45 on a pair of free throws by Romeo Travis, and then a Villegas 3-pointer a few minutes later made it a 62-54 Rocket lead.
“We buried ourselves early, fought back into it, then it turned into a four-point game and we could not get a stop,” Akron coach Dan Hipsher said. “We just could not get a stop.”
Akron was breathing down the Rockets necks again with 8:36 left, down just 64-62, when Ricardo Thomas stepped to the forefront and made consecutive put-back baskets to push the lead back to six.
“We just had to make an effort to go to the offensive glass,” Thomas said. “Coach preached that, and I think we came out and did a pretty good job with it.”
The Zips were within four with six minutes to play when Villegas finally struck the telling blow. Toledo called time with 12 seconds on the shot clock and ran a play that freed Villegas at the top of the key.
He buried a 3-pointer with five seconds on the shot clock for a 77-68 lead.
“That shot was what really did it,” Hipsher said.
The Rockets got up by as many as 11 in the closing flurry, and Thomas hit three free throws in the final 48 seconds to keep the lid on it.
“Most of the time when you go out on the road in the MAC you re just trying to hang around and stay close until the final minutes, and we did that,” Hipsher said. “We just couldn t get that one stop we needed.”
Toledo had a 45-31 advantage on the boards, and held the MAC s No. 2 rebounder, freshman Jeremiah Wood, to just three. He had been averaging nine per game.
“I think we won tonight with great defense,” Triplett said.
“I thought this was the first time that we played hard for close to 40 minutes, or the closest to that we ve had,” Joplin said. “We had some guys come off the bench and play well, and I think that turned out to be the big difference.”
The Rockets jumped out to a 12-2 lead four minutes into the game by pushing Akron on the defensive end and forcing the Zips to the extent of the shot clock on three occasions. Akron cut the lead to just three points a couple of minutes later on free throws by Travis.
When Villegas rebounded his own miss and took it back out for a 3-pointer, Toledo had its biggest lead of the first half at 25-16.