DEKALB, Ill. - For lack of anything better, just call it bus lag. The University of Toledo basketball team arrived here about 12 minutes after the start of yesterday s game with Northern Illinois.
By then, the Rockets found themselves in a 22-8 hole and sinking fast. Twenty active minutes later, a suddenly awakened and energized UT had a 68-50 lead and the game was essentially over. The Rockets went on to win 77-64.
“We were playing some pretty ugly basketball,” UT coach Stan Joplin said about his team s sluggish start. “It was like we were in slow motion, or playing in quicksand.”
Toledo, 9-2 in the Mid-American Conference, is off to its best start in the MAC since the 1979-80 team started 10-1 on its way to a MAC title and the school s last NCAA tournament berth.
It was only the second win here for UT (15-4) in its last six trips.
“We haven t played well here in a long time,” Joplin said. “Maybe it s the bus ride - we always get caught in traffic in Chicago. It seems like we went about five miles in an hour yesterday - and it wasn t even rush hour.”
Senior Keith Triplett led Toledo with 21 points and rode shotgun as UT took over the game and dominated the Huskies.
After trailing by 14 points with eight minutes left in the first half, Toledo outscored Northern Illinois 60-28 over a 20 minute span in the middle of the game and led 68-50 with seven minutes to play in the game.
Northern built the early lead as Triplett and Sammy Villegas started out a combined 0-for-11 from the field. The Rockets went almost nine minutes in one early stretch without a point, missing 14 field goal attempts in a row as Northern put on a 17-0 run.
“I knew I was going to start hitting my shots,” Triplett said. “We just had to try and get some stops on defense, because defense wins games. Once we got a few stops, the shots started falling and the big men started rebounding.”
Triplett, who is second in the MAC in scoring at 19.8 points per game, did not score his first basket until just 6:45 remained in the first half when he converted on the fast break to cut Northern s lead to 24-14.
Triplett caught fire, hitting a 3-pointer in transition with about five minutes left in the half to cut the lead to 28-21. Toledo kept chipping away and Triplett finally gave the Rockets their first tie since the opening minutes with a 3 from the corner with just over two minutes left in the half.
“In the last five minutes of the first half, Triplett made three 3s, and two of them were in transition,” Northern coach Rob Judson said. “That really changed the game, and then we were playing from behind the rest of the way.”
The Rockets led 37-35 at the break, and then sustained the momentum in the second half, building a 56-45 lead with 12 minutes left in the game when Villegas hit a 3-pointer in transition - his first after missing his first five long-distance shots. When A.J. Shellabarger scored on an in-bounds play with seven minutes left in the game, the Toledo lead was 68-50.
Toledo stretched its advantage to as many as 20 points twice down the stretch. Villegas and Justin Ingram each had 11 for UT, while Valencia added 10.
“We had a lot of open jump shots early - but they just weren t falling,” Joplin said. “Then we got some energy going and played pretty well. In the first half, I thought Keith was not being aggressive like he should be. But he picked it up and was really a leader by the way he played.”
Northern Illinois (7-12, 2-7), one of the preseason favorites in the MAC West, dropped its fourth straight game, and has now lost six of its last seven.
Perry Smith the Huskies with 14 points and Anthony Maestranzi added 10.
BRACKET BUSTER: The Rockets should know late tonight or early tomorrow who their opponent will be in the Feb. 21 ESPN Bracket Busters game. ESPN will match up all 13 MAC teams with opponents from other conferences on that day, and the best match-ups will be carried on the network. Toledo will play on the road, and then host a game next season.