There's no place like home for the holidays, and for the first round of a conference basketball tournament.
The University of Toledo's Rockets assured themselves of hosting an opening-round game in the upcoming Mid-American Conference men's tournament with yesterday's 81-54 romp past Ball State at Savage Hall.
UT's fifth straight league victory upped its MAC record to 8-8, no small accomplishment for a team that lost six of its first seven conference games this season.
That 1-6 start put the Rockets behind the 8-ball in competing for a West Division title, caused community and campus support to turn lukewarm, at best, and might have been enough for another team to run up the white flag.
But coach Stan Joplin never wavered in his belief that a .500 mark, or even a winning record, in league play was still in the cards.
"The January schedule was tough and we had guys we thought we could count on who either weren't playing or weren't playing well," he said. "So I thought all along that we were the one team in the conference that could improve the most and I think that's what happened.
"We just had to stay the course and be positive. Our players never gave up, never hung their heads, never stopped believing in themselves. And I never worried for one second about them quitting. They have too much character."
Toledo, 15-10 overall, plays MAC West leader Western Michigan at Savage Hall on Wednesday and then closes the regular season Saturday at last-place Central Michigan.
Regardless of the outcome of those games and others, UT will be unable to earn a first-round tournament bye. But four MAC teams have five or fewer conference wins and the Rockets own at least a three-game lead over them with two to play. That locks up a first-round home game.
"When we were 1-6, all we focused on was that we were better than that," said guard Justin Ingram, who had a game-high 18 points while adding six assists and three steals. "We knew it; we just had to prove it. We've come a long way and it's great to be back to .500 and to know we'll get a home game in the tournament."
Yesterday's home game was pretty much decided in the first 10 minutes of play.
Center Jerrah Young hit a couple early baskets, Ingram and Kashif Payne nailed 3-pointers, Keonta Howell and Tino Valencia made strong drives for baskets, and Tyrone Kent worked hard in traffic to score on a tip-in at the 10:42 mark that put the Rockets ahead 17-3.
That was a 17-point run after Jalon Perryman scored the first basket of the game to give Ball State a 3-0 lead. The Cardinals (9-15, 5-11) would not score again for nine minutes and 38 seconds.
"I really liked our defensive energy and effort," Joplin said. "We competed with a sense of urgency."
Ball State was guilty of a season-high 22 turnovers, 14 of them coming on Rocket steals.
"That's exactly Toledo's [opponent] average in their wins," BSU coach Tim Buckley said of the 22 turnovers. "We talked about having to keep it to 12 or 13 to have a chance. We didn't, and we didn't."
The Rockets held Ball State star Skip Mills to eight points, only the third time in the last 33 games that he has failed to reach double figures. He finished the first half without an attempted shot.
"We kept a lot of fresh bodies on him," Ingram said. "We played him strong and limited his touches. We felt that if we won all the hustle plays we'd come up with a win."
Two Toledo freshman posted career scoring highs. Kent was 6-of-9 from the field en route to 14 points while Young came through with 11. Both added five rebounds. Payne also scored 11 for UT.
NOTES: The Rockets have won four in a row against Ball State at Savage Hall by an average margin of 19 points. … The last time UT won five straight MAC games was late in the 2001-02 season. … The Rockets have held 10 straight opponents under 70 points. … Howell had a career high with three blocked shots. … UT is averaging 25 free throw attempts in the last six games. … Senior Sammy Villegas sprained an ankle early in the game and logged just five minutes. Joplin did not seem to think the injury was serious. … Ball State had six field goals and 13 turnovers in the first half.
Contact Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.