YPSILANTI, Mich. - Up by eight points with eight minutes to play yesterday against Eastern Michigan, the University of Toledo basketball team was poised to open the Mid-American Conference season with a win. But the lead quickly melted away and the Rockets ran out of gas down the stretch and lost 75-70 to the Eagles.
"Any time you are on the road, you want to put yourself in position to win, and we put ourselves in position," Toledo head coach Stan Joplin said. "But down the stretch we had some slippage on defense. When you go up by eight, that's when you have to put a team away, and we didn't do that. We had a chance, but we didn't make good decisions."
The Rockets (4-6, 0-1) went up 61-53 for the biggest lead of the day when Keonta Howell nailed a 3-pointer from the corner, but Eastern Michigan (8-3, 2-0) pushed the ball inside for two straight baskets, and then tied it less than two minutes after UT had been up by eight.
"They erased an eight-point lead because of our transition defense," Joplin said. "That's when we have to dig down and be a lot tougher, and we weren't, and that hurts. Then they made the plays down the stretch, and we didn't."
The Rockets looked to senior Keith Triplett, who led all scorers with 22 points, in the closing minutes, and Triplett gave UT its final basket of the game and the lead at 66-63 with 5:44 to play. Eastern Michigan cranked up the defensive pressure and held Toledo without a field goal until the final 15 seconds of the game.
"That was as good an effort as we've had in some time defensively," Eastern coach Jim Boone said. "Our guys had to dig and claw and fight our way back into that game."
James Jackson, who had 13 points and 17 rebounds for the Eagles, said his team played with a sense of purpose down the stretch.
"I saw it in our eyes when we huddled up, it was now or never," Jackson said. "Why play 40 minutes and then lose the game? It came down to just a few possessions at the end, and all we needed was a stop when it counted."
The Eagles stopped Triplett's drive to the basket with three minutes left and UT clinging to a 66-65 lead, and then Michael Ross hit a jumper with 2:38 left to put Eastern in front. After Triplett tied it with a free throw, Eastern's John Bowler, who had 16 points and nine rebounds, blocked Triplett's shot with
1:42 left, and three straight points by freshman Darryl Garrett gave EMU a 70-67 lead with 1:23 left.
"We're just letting everyone know we're not going to lose here," Bowler said. "This is a pretty good statement game for us. We're not going to quit or back down from anybody in this league."
The Rockets, who had won three straight after a 1-5 start, were tied with Eastern 12 times, and the lead changed hands 18 times in the game. Ross led Eastern with 17 points, while Sammy Villegas added 11 for the Rockets.
"It was a hard-fought game and we thought we should have won it," Justin Ingram said, "but we've just got to put this game behind us. We can't get down, and we just have to make sure we're ready for the next one."
The Rockets, who rank last in the MAC in rebounding, were outrebounded 44-34 by Eastern Michigan.
UT started to get some steals with active interior defense and pushed to a 14-10 lead about seven minutes into the game. Eastern Michigan then reeled off eight straight points and went back on top 18-14 halfway through the opening 20 minutes.
The lead switched back and forth as the pace was brisk, and Toledo went up 27-25 with five minutes left in the half as Triplett hit four straight free throws after getting fouled on two moves to the basket. He added a baseline jumper, and then hit a driving jump shot with 10 seconds left to give Toledo a 37-33 lead at the half.
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