DEKALB, Ill. - This is where the West was won for the Toledo Rockets. By virtue of their 86-83 win over Northern Illinois last night, the Rockets claimed a fourth Mid-American Conference West Division crown.
Toledo (15-11, 11-2) has a four-game lead over second-place Western Michigan with three games left in the season.
But the Rockets were the first to admit that this was clearly not how the West was won.
Toledo had to fight back from seven points down in the second half, trade baskets with a Northern Illinois team that had lost 17 of 18 games in one stretch this season, and then get a few late stops and make free throws in the closing seconds to escape with the victory.
"It wasn't the prettiest thing, but we came out with a win, and that's what good teams do," Toledo senior Justin Ingram said. "This was one of our goals - to win the West - and now we have to get the overall MAC championship."
The Rockets have the league's best record and can clinch the MAC's regular season title in the simplest manner with three more wins. Toledo coach Stan Joplin said last night his team did it the hard way against Northern Illinois.
"This was a game we were concerned about, because every game we've played here has been tight," Joplin said.
That accurately describes this one too.
Toledo had led 43-37 at the half, but Northern Illinois (6-20, 3-10) started the second half with a 16-5 run and had built a seven point advantage, 55-48, five minutes into the final 20 minutes.
"We had a lead, but at the start of the second half we didn't do anything," Joplin said. "We didn't come out with a lot of energy, and they got going."
The Rockets ratcheted up the defense and quickly got back within three by forcing several Huskies' turnovers with a trapping scheme in the backcourt.
Florentino Valencia pulled the Rockets even at 60 with a reverse layup on a feed from Kashif Payne with 11 minutes to play. Northern Illinois answered right away, and the exchange continued until Ingram's basket in the lane with 2:30 left tied it at 81-81.
Bristan Kelley gave Northern Illinois its final lead of the night at 83-81 with a bucket inside with two minutes to play. The Huskies got a steal at the Toledo end and had a chance to extend the lead, but a shot clock violation gave Toledo the ball back. Payne's jumper from the elbow with 49 seconds left tied it again.
Northern Illinois' Cody Yelder missed a shot, James Hughes missed a tip, and Toledo's Keonta Howell rebounded with 17.9 seconds left and was fouled. Howell hit one free throw to put Toledo up 84-83. The Huskies struggled to find a good look against Toledo's defense, and a forced effort by Ryan Paradise from just inside the 3-point line went off the rim with 3.5 seconds to play.
Ingram rebounded and was fouled, and hit both shots to give Toledo a three-point win.
"The last three or four possessions we got stops, and that was basically it," Joplin said. "But we can't wait until our backs are against the wall like that. We didn't have that adrenalin flowing like we need to."
Howell and Valencia led the Rockets with 16 points each, while Ingram had 15 and Payne 12. Howell went 6-12 from the field after struggling a little with his shot in recent games.
"I feel like I'm getting my rhythm back, and tonight the shots were falling," Howell said. "I felt more comfortable with my shot out there."
The Rockets forced 18 turnovers, and scored 21 points off those Northern Illinois miscues.
"That's Toledo's bread and butter - that's why they're good," Northern Illinois coach Rob Judson said. "Against a very good Toledo team, we were in position to win and just didn't make the plays we needed to win."
The Rockets have now finished no worse than second in the MAC West in eight of the last nine years, and have won division titles four times: 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2005-05, and this season.
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