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Published: Sunday, 3/12/2006

Joplin, Rockets grow together

CLEVELAND - Win or lose, this is a story that needs to be told.

The University of Toledo put a big scare into Kent State in the Mid-American Conference championship game, nearly pulling off an improbable comeback against the mack of the MAC.

Unfortunately, this was one miracle the Rockets couldn't pull off.

The Rockets were unable to finish what they started over a month ago when they embarked on a 10-game winning streak against MAC opponents. The Rockets' magic-carpet ride was grounded last night in a heartbreaking 71-66 defeat at Quicken Loans Arena.

The Rockets bent, but they never broke.

Playing on tired legs at the end of a four-games-in-six-days marathon, the Rockets finally hit the wall and trailed 56-38 with 8:32 to play. But then they hit back, outscoring Kent 19-4 to entertain, however briefly, thoughts of another monumental win.

Alas, it was not to be. From 60-57, the Rockets fell behind 68-57, before one final rally left them three points short at 69-66 on Justin Ingram's 3-pointer with 21 seconds remaining - too little, too late.

But, boy, oh, boy, was it ever fun while it lasted for the 20-11 Rockets.

"I thought we grew a lot from the begining of the season until now. But we have a lot of room for improvement because we don't want to be in this position next year,'' said Ingram, who led the Rockets with 16 points and was named to the all-tournament team. "Get back in the gym and work on stuff so when we get to next year we'll be out there on the court celebrating.''

It's been a strange new world for the Rockets, and welcome to it, Stan Joplin.

Winning 20 games for the third time in his 10-year tenure at UT, and coaching in his first MAC championship game has raised the bar for Joplin and his Rockets.

So now maybe, finally, the soap opera that has been a big part of Joplin's life the last two years - will he or won't he return to coach the Rockets next season? - will be canceled.

Joplin's job is secure. He's proven his worth.

Apparently, athletic director Mike O'Brien realized the best man for the job is already on the job.

Good. Enough is enough.

A story in last week's Blade quoted O'Brien endorsing Joplin's return in the form of a contract extension. Beyond that, details such as how many years the new deal is for, remain unanswered.

Joplin didn't want to talk about his contract situation after last night's game, and who could blame him?

The loss to Kent State was still fresh in his mind.

"We didn't play our best game, but we hung in there,'' Joplin said. "Our players didn't quit.''

Said Ingram: "Coach just told us to keep fighting.''

Indeed, the Rockets listened to their coach. Hung on his every word, in fact.

It's been a learning process for both sides - from the coach who has learned how to push the right buttons at the right times, to the players who finally bought into Joplin's us-against-the-world warrior mentality and adopted his zeal for pressure defense and team play.

"The one thing I learned is that what I was doing was completely right,'' Joplin said. "I just had to stay with it, and the players came around. This team grew and I grew also.''

What took O'Brien so long to acknowledge Joplin's importance to UT is one of life's great mysteries.



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