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Published: Sunday, 2/20/2005

Rockets help themselves to victory

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Toledo's Keith Triplett and Southern Methodist's Devon Pearson fight for a loose ball. Toledo's Keith Triplett and Southern Methodist's Devon Pearson fight for a loose ball.
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Long ago, when John McKay was coaching the Tampa Bay Bucs, then a feeble NFL expansion team, and was asked about his team's execution, he quipped: "I'm all for it."

Stan Joplin, the University of Toledo's basketball coach, had no reason for such a cynical viewpoint yesterday.

His Rockets executed about as well as possible in a 78-67 win over Southern Methodist at Savage Hall.

UT shot 53 per cent from the floor and even better (10 of 17, .588) from 3-point range. The key was 20 assists on 25 baskets.

"Man, that's sort of shocking," Joplin said. "I can't remember us having numbers like that. That's really sharing the ball. That's a case of patience and ball reversal creating good scoring opportunities.

"I always tell my guys that if you drive to the basket for yourself, that's being selfish. But when you drive to get a shot for your teammate, then that's team basketball. We got that today."

Back-up point guard Kashif Payne dished out a career-high nine assists in 19 minutes of playing time. The starter, Justin Ingram, assisted on six baskets.

"The reason for a lot of it was that our big men were finishing plays," Joplin said.

Florentino Valencia, who subs into the frontcourt, made 7 of 10 shots for 15 points, with some of the biggest coming when UT broke away from a 40-40 tie early in the second half.

"We cut harder, we tried to get in our sets faster and there were a lot of good picks being set," Valencia said of UT's offensive effort.

The Rockets' bench again came up huge, outscoring the SMU subs by a whopping 31-2 margin.

That figure wasn't even enhanced by Keonta Howell's 15-point, six-rebound effort since the 6-4 sophomore got a rare start for the purpose of defensive match-ups.

"I think what we saw today was the benefit of having two really good point guards," Howell said.

"You have to credit them for getting us in our sets and making good passes."

Joplin, who posted his 150th career win at UT, hesitates to start Howell because "the result is usually two quick fouls and I'm kicking myself because he's back on the bench instead of rebounding and playing defense."

This time, the result from Howell was two quick 3-pointers as the Rockets rushed to leads of 10-2 and 19-9.

Valencia took over after SMU fought back to tie it with about 14 minutes to play. He scored three straight baskets at one point, the last on a fast-break trail pass from Payne that was turned into a dunk. Later, Valencia scored a three-point play after an offensive rebound to give the Rockets some breathing room.

Howell then put the Mustangs (12-11) away with back-to-back treys in the final 2 1/2 minutes.

"When I made the first two it gave me a lot of confidence," Howell said.

"By the two at the end, I felt like I couldn't miss."

The Rockets rarely did. The 10 successes from beyond the 3-point arc matched a season high and the team's long-distance shooting percentage was the best of the year as UT improved to 13-11 during a late-season break from Mid-American Conference play.

Keith Triplett, who was perfect on nine free throws, led Toledo with 16 points and had three of the Rockets' 10 steals.

"We keep showing flashes," Joplin said of his team's solid play at both ends.

"But I still worry about consistency."

The UT coach would surely like to see more of what he did yesterday as the Rockets return to MAC action for the final four games of the regular season. A trip to Ball State on Thursday and a Saturday home game against Central Michigan are on this week's slate.

SMU, which was outscored 30-9 from 3-point range, recovered from cold shooting early and twice pulled to within six points in the late going only to see UT's Howell answer each time with a trey.

The Mustangs had three players - Bryan Hopkins, Eric Castro and Devon Pearson - finish with 18 points each.

Contact Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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