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Published: Thursday, 3/4/2004

Rockets cash in Chips; Triplett nets 25


MT. PLEASANT, Mich. - After 40 minutes of basketball against Central Michigan here last night, the University of Toledo won the right to . . . most likely play the Chippewas again in just four days.

The Rockets closed out the regular season with an 84-76 Mid-American Conference win, and it looks like Toledo will open the MAC Tournament on Monday in Savage Hall against Central Michigan.

Toledo (18-9, 12-6) went into the game hoping a victory would nail down the No. 3 seed in the MAC Tournament, and a first-round bye, meaning the Rockets would advance straight to the quarterfinals at the Gund Arena in Cleveland. But Miami, the team Toledo is battling for that seed, upset Kent State last night and will claim the No. 3 seed with a win at home over Marshall on Saturday.

“We were hoping Kent State would do us a favor,” Toledo coach Stan Joplin said, “but they didn t.”

The Rockets were led last night by Keith Triplett with 25 points, Sammy Villegas with 16, Justin Ingram with 14, and A.J. Shellabarger with 10. Gerrit Brigitha led Central Michigan with 25 points.

Central Michigan (5-23, 1-16) will finish with the worst record in the MAC and the No. 13 seed, meaning the Chippewas face the No. 4 seed on the road - in all likelihood the Rockets.

Toledo was sluggish before beating the Chippewas 83-71 in early January at Savage Hall, and had similar struggles last night before putting Central away again. The Rockets had a season-high 22 turnovers last night and sent Central Michigan to the free throw line 44 times.

“It seemed like we either scored or we turned the ball over,” Joplin said. “And we either played good defense or we fouled. We re obviously happy with the win, but we knew it would be a dogfight.”

Central Michigan, which had lost every game it played in the month of January (9) as part of an 11-game losing streak, was intent on taking away the 3-point shot from the Rockets from the start. That left Toledo with the option of pushing the ball inside or driving it to the basket.

“They defended the 3-point line pretty good,” Villegas said. “But we just didn t come out with the right mindset. We didn t come out ready to play. We turned it over too much, and we fouled too much.”

The Chippewas had a 17-13 lead with about eight minutes gone in the game, but Shellabarger caught a length-of-the-court pass for a dunk, took a charge, then scored on a lob from Ricardo Thomas after a couple of free throws by Triplett to give UT a 19-17 lead.

Ingram s end-to-end drive for a basket put Toledo up 24-19 with eight minutes left in the half for its biggest lead before intermission. Central Michigan had its last lead of the game with just over four minutes left in the half, and six points from freshman Ingram in the final two minutes allowed UT to take a 39-36 lead at the half.

Toledo maintained the lead early in the second half by swapping scores with the Chippewas, but could not open up any breathing room. With seven minutes left in the game the Rockets led just 68-64, but Toledo got the ball down the floor ahead of the Central defense for layups on three straight possessions and had an 80-70 advantage with just over three minutes to play.

“We played hard, but I m disappointed that we gave them too many layups,” Central coach Jay Smith said. “They gave us opportunities, and we got what we wanted which was to get to the free throw line, but we didn t take advantage of it enough. It s a new day, but the same story. We found another way to lose.”

The Chippewas hit just 28 of 44 from the line (63.6 percent). On the strength of its numerous layups, Toledo shot 62.5 percent from the field (30 of 48).

“Late in the game we got into a rhythm a little bit,” Villegas said. “And it s tough for the other team to make it up when we get ahead by 10.”

NOTES: Triplett received a technical foul about six minutes into the game for slamming the ball off the backboard after he was called for traveling while attempting to drive to the basket. ... Central Michigan assistant coach Marc Comstock was an assistant coach at UT under Bob Nichols during the 1986-87 season.

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