KING / BLADE Enlarge
The first four shots attempted by Northern Illinois yesterday were about as clean, wide-open, and undefended as a team will ever hope to see.
So with his team trailing 8-4, University of Toledo coach Stan Joplin burned an early timeout and reminded his Rockets that they might want to play a little defense.
From that point on, nothing came easily for the Huskies as UT broke to a 22-point lead late in the half and rolled to a 74-58 victory at Savage Hall.
"I didn't like the energy we came out with," Joplin said. "We were reacting instead of dictating."
The Rockets turned into tyrants the rest of the way, making nine steals and converting on a somewhat astounding 32 of 45 two-point field goal attempts (71 per cent) en route to their third straight win and fifth in the last six tries.
"We might not have been focused at the start, so we had to regroup," said junior forward Anton Currie, who made seven of eight shots from the field and led four Rockets into double figures with 15 points.
"We knew we had to play some defense and make some stops because that's what has been winning games for us."
The Rockets held a third straight opponent to fewer than 60 points, and that hasn't happened since the first three contests of the 1998-99 season.
This particular opponent entered the game as the Mid-American Conference's top 3-point shooting team. Northern Illinois was hitting 41 percent of its attempts from long distance.
Yesterday, the Huskies missed on their first 12 tries and didn't get one to drop until just 1:33 was left in a game that had long since been decided.
"We did a pretty decent job contesting shots," Joplin said. "The only 3-pointers they got were late. We tried to take away as many things as we could."
During the decisive first-half stretch, the Rockets took away the ball as much as anything.
With the score tied at 14, UT turned up the heat, forced a faster pace than the Huskies preferred and turned four steals into easy baskets. Perhaps the prettiest play came when Currie tipped a ball loose at the defensive end and then flew down the court to take a return pass from Kashif Payne for a dunk.
"I wouldn't say it was the best stretch we've played, but we were definitely playing at a high intensity," said Payne, a 5-9 freshman point guard who finished with three steals and a game-high seven assists. "We got into transition with our defense and that helped a lot."
From the point of the 14-14 tie, Northern Illinois went 7:49 without a field goal, a stretch which saw the Huskies (9-13, 5-9) manage just two free throws and fall into a 35-16 hole. UT went on to lead by as many as 22 points late in the first half and by 25 with 14 minutes left before coasting home.
Keith Triplett had 14 points, Florentino Valencia scored 13 and Justin Ingram 12 to back Currie in double figures.
The Rockets improved to 12-10 overall and, at 8-5 in league play, remained tied for second, one-half game behind Western Michigan in the MAC West.
"We're in high spirits," UT's Currie said. "We're getting down to the end of the season and everything is so close. This is the time we want to be peaking.
"If we keep playing defense like we have the last few games, everything should work out."
The Rockets, who have played five of their last six games in the friendly confines of Savage Hall, play tomorrow night at Akron (13-7, 7-5).
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.