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Published: Monday, 12/11/2006

Rockets' Payne picks up pace

Kashif Payne found competing against No. 12 Kansas a tall order Saturday, but the Rockets' point guard demonstrated flair and confidence that had been lacking in previous games. Kashif Payne found competing against No. 12 Kansas a tall order Saturday, but the Rockets' point guard demonstrated flair and confidence that had been lacking in previous games.

Kashif Payne's numbers weren't eye-popping, but his performance was what University of Toledo coach Stan Joplin had been waiting for several weeks to witness.

The Rockets' point guard made just 2 of 9 shots and broke even in turnovers and assists during Saturday's 68-58 loss to 12th-ranked Kansas, but he played with flair and with an air of confidence that had been missing during most of UT's early-season slate.

"I thought he played the way we need him to be playing," Joplin said after the game at Kemper Arena in Kansas City. "He played with speed and quickness. So, hopefully, he's coming out of it."

The "it" may be hard to define, but it surely started with the preseason death of teammate Haris Charalambous, who was Payne's roommate and close friend.

"Sure, that was tough to deal with at first," Payne said. "He's always with us. But on the court I have to tune it out the best I can and stay focused.

"But I felt I was in it [Saturday]. I knew it would be a tough game and I had to come out ready to play. I started with a little more energy. I wanted to create easy baskets for my teammates."

Payne led the Rockets to an 18-5 scoring edge in transition points and kept UT's offense in flow while in half-court motion. He tied his season high with five assists.

"That was the big thing I'd been talking to Kashif about," Joplin said. "Last season he almost had a 2-to-1 ratio in assists to turnovers and this year I guess it's been around even. I just didn't think he'd been playing with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. I'm sure Haris had a lot to do with that as close as they were. It's not an easy thing to deal with.

"But I told 'Shif that he's in his third year and I've been riding him for three years. That isn't going to change because my expectations keep getting higher for him and he has to satisfy them."

Payne is averaging fewer than four points per game and now has 32 assists compared to 26 turnovers.

"I know the shots will start falling, I just have to keep working hard at it," Payne said. "And I definitely have to turn around the assists-turnovers."

Finally, after seven road games to open the season, Payne and his teammates will get a chance to turn things around at home.

The 2-5 Rockets are one of only three Division I teams in the nation yet to have played a home game - Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State are the others - but that will change on Saturday night when North Carolina-Wilmington visits Savage Hall.

"This early schedule definitely was a learning experience," Payne said. "I don't think the record reflects our full ability. Now we're finally going home and it's something we need. It's time to get a winning streak started."

NOTES: After Kansas swatted away 15 shots Saturday, opponents have blocked 44 UT shots this season. The Rockets have 12 blocks. Keonta Howell is 16 of 16 from the free throw line and a has a streak of 20 straight going back to last season. Under Joplin, the Rockets are 3-5 against ranked opponents. They've lost the last three to Louisville, Duke and Kansas. The most recent Sagarin college basketball ratings had UT's schedule ranked as the 15th toughest among 336 Division I teams. And that was before the Rockets played Kansas. UT's next opponent, UNC-Wilmington, will bring a 3-5 record to Savage Hall. One of the wins was by 67-55 over Colorado. The Seahawks lost 78-62 on Saturday to Missouri State, the same team the Rockets fell to in the season opener by a 79-66 margin.

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

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