The University of Toledo's basketball team needed a defensive stop in the worst way last night.
The Rockets got two of them, but were not rewarded for either of those efforts in the Mid-American Conference opener against Northern Illinois.
UT lost to the Huskies for just the second time in the last 15 games between the teams at Savage Hall, trailing by 24 points early in the second half before dropping a 73-69 decision before 4,386 fans.
The Rockets twice rallied to within three points in the late going and twice got the defensive stops they needed, yet fell to 3-2 and 0-1 in MAC play.
Justin Ingram, who was scoreless at halftime before exploding for all of his game-high 21 points, blocked a shot by NIU's Cory Sims with about 1:00 to play, but the loose ball went to the Huskies and a subsequent missed shot was tipped in by Todd Peterson to put the visitors up by 72-67.
UT's Florentino Valencia scored after an offensive rebound of his own 20 seconds later, making it 72-69 and setting the stage for one last stand.
Pressure at mid-court disrupted the Huskies and Tyrone Kent dove to recover a loose ball. The freshman's three options were to call time out, hold on for a tied-ball situation with the possession arrow favoring UT, or flip a difficult pass to teammate Kashif Payne who might have had a clear lane to an open shot.
Kent tried the latter, but the little flip pass was picked off by an NIU player. UT had to foul and that was that.
"Those two situations were huge because we were playing with confidence and I think we could have put a lot of pressure on Northern," said UT coach Stan Joplin. "We were hustling and made two defensive plays, but couldn't finish off the plays. That was a tough spot for Tyrone. I was trying to get [a timeout] from the bench. It would have made a big difference."
The Rockets competed better in the second half, upping their defensive intensity and shooting 58 per cent from the floor, but they never fully overcame a poor first-half effort that resulted in a 43-21 deficit at the break.
"In the first half, we didn't show any heart," Ingram said. "It shouldn't happen. We were 3-1 and maybe a little too comfortable. You hate to lose, but maybe this was a good loss. It'll be a reality check for us. Maybe we'll realize we're not that good and we'd better go back to work."
NIU made 13 of its first 14 tries from the field - the Huskies didn't suffer their second missed shot until 8:45 remained in the first half - and ended up shooting 69 per cent during the first period.
"Give Northern Illinois credit," Joplin said. "They came into our house and took it to us. We didn't respond. They got every loose ball, every big rebound and had way too many open shots. What really bothered me was them scoring three straight baskets - bing, bing, bing - when our guys were standing and watching and didn't get back on defense."
Toledo played as if it had never faced a zone defense before, settling for one perimeter launch after another. The Rockets missed three treys on one possession late in the first half while trailing by 20-plus points.
UT shot 29 per cent from the field - and was 3-of-12 from the 3-point line - en route to being outscored 26-4 in the paint during the first 20 minutes.
"I wouldn't say [NIU's zone] gave us fits," Ingram said. "We just settled for shooting too many jump shots. In the second half, we started attacking the basket better. Tino scored a couple baskets and then we started kicking it out and getting open jump shots. That was the difference."
Ingram was 6-of-8 in the second half, including 4-of-6 from 3-point range, to fuel UT's comeback bid. Sammy Villegas also hit four 3-pointers en route to 14 points while Kent hit a pair of treys while scoring nine points.
NIU won its third straight with Sims scoring 20 points to lead three Huskies into double figures.
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.39.49974 -111.5473