Rockets' blocks stop Zips

Toledo forward Florentino Valencia dunks in the face of Akron's Romeo Travis as the Rockets were able to hold off the Zips in the waning moments last night. Valencia led UT with 17 points.
Toledo forward Florentino Valencia dunks in the face of Akron's Romeo Travis as the Rockets were able to hold off the Zips in the waning moments last night. Valencia led UT with 17 points.

The Toledo men's basketball team isn't scheduled to face Akron again this season.

Anyone who watched last night's meeting between those two teams at Savage Hall - and the crowd was announced at 7,925 - certainly would vouch that a rematch may be in order.

The leaders of the East and West Divisions of the Mid-American Conference battled for 40 minutes before the Rockets, behind some last-second heroics of Jerrah Young and Kashif Payne, escaped with a 68-65 victory.

"In the last four or five possessions, we got some stops," Toledo coach Stan Joplin said of his defense, which held the Zips scoreless in the final 3:20 of the game. "The last three or four minutes our defense got a little better. We just had to play harder [in the second half]."

The Rockets were clinging to a two-point advantage in the final minute when Young blocked a potential game-tying shot by Akron's Romeo Travis, then grabbed the rebound of a Cedrick Middleton 3-point miss with 18.4 seconds to play.

"When Romeo was giving us some heartaches, we moved Jerrah Young on him," Joplin said. "He's a little bit bigger, and a little bit longer, and he gave him a little more trouble."

Young made the second of two free throws, setting the stage for Payne's first career blocked shot. With the clock winding down, Payne forced Middleton to lose the ball, and a jump ball was called. The final pass was inbounded with 1.7 seconds to play.

Dru Joyce tried to launch a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but Payne blocked that shot to preserve the Rockets' 14th straight home win - and snap the Zips' nine-game win streak.

"I tried to make him catch it closer to halfcourt," Payne said. "I just wanted to contest the shot, and I was able to recover and block the shot."

Toledo, which improved to 13-10 overall and 9-2 in the MAC, was led by 17 points from Tino Valencia and 16 apiece by Ridley Johnson and Payne. Akron (18-5, 9-2) got 17 from Nick Dials, 15 from Travis and 14 by Jeremiah Wood.

The second half was especially entertaining as the Rockets spent most of the period slicing Akron's lead, only to see the Zips rebuild the advantage quickly.

Johnson grabbed a loose ball and scored with 10:58 in the half to give UT a one-point lead. But Akron quickly inbounded and whipped the ball downcourt to Dials, who hit a 3-pointer from the right corner just seven seconds later to put the Zips back on top.

In the final 5:49 the lead changed hands five times before a goaltend basket by Valencia gave the Rockets the lead for good at 66-65.

That was far different from the first half, most of which belonged to the Zips. They used an efficient offense to build an early lead and made 68.2 percent of their first-half shots.

It didn't hurt that Toledo struggled offensively, connecting on just 6 of its first 16 shots. The Rockets' saving grace was Johnson, who passed his previous career high of nine points in the first 10 minutes.

"I had been struggling [from the 3-point line], so I knew I'd be open," said Johnson, who finished with a career-high 16. Johnson had missed his last 10 3-point shots before making two of four from behind the arc.

Payne carried the Rockets to a late rush by scoring nine of his 12 first-half points in the final five minutes. That included a jumper from the left of the lane at the halftime buzzer that carried Toledo to within 37-34 at the break.

"We started the game shooting a lot of jumpers, and we weren't making them," said Payne, who had 16. "I just wanted to be more aggressive, so I tried to push the ball into the lane to the basket."

That merely set the stage for an entertaining second half. Anyone care for a rematch?

"Not if we don't win," Akron coach Keith Dambrot said.

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