A lot was on the line when the University of Illinois at Chicago Flames battled the Northern Kentucky University Norse Friday night in front of a hyped-up crowd of 3,168 fans at the UIC Pavilion.
That’s why a 79-72 loss stung so much. The way the Flames lost, battling back from a 15-point deficit at halftime to tie the game at 61 apiece at the 5:46 mark in the second half and then sticking around the rest of the way but never leading, added an extra layer of pain to the loss. But the Flames are trying to stay positive.
“We’re disappointed that we gave this one up, but we know that we still have a good situation in front of us,” said Flames senior Tai Odiase. “Everything is in place to make a run in the (Horizon League) tournament.”
This weekend is a litmus test for the Flames. A win tonight would have tied the Flames with Northern Kentucky for the second-best record in the Horizon League and paired in conjunction with a win on Sunday against Wright State could have propelled the Flames to a share of its second regular season league championship in program history (the other one coming in 1998). The loss tonight means they can no longer win the league, but this game still provided them with a valuable tuneup before the Motor City Madness Horizon League tournament beginning March 2nd.
With a 15-point deficit at halftime, UIC sophomore forward Dikembe Dixson began the second half with a three-point field goal which initiated a 10-2 run from the Flames. UIC found themselves down just three points with 16 minutes to play.
“I thought we adjusted at halftime, we came out we had fight going, and our offense back right,” said UIC head coach Steve McClain about the change in the second half. “Then it just came down to they making a couple plays that we didn’t make.”
Later in the second half, the Norse turned the ball over on two straight possessions which led to a 6-0 run punctuated with a driving layup from sophomore guard Marcus Ottey which tied the game at 61 apiece at the 5:48 mark in the second half.
UIC forward Jordan Blount delivered an accidental elbow to Northern Kentucky star Drew McDonald’s face and McDonald had to come out of the game at the 8:03 mark in the second half. But he returned a few minutes later, hitting a 3-point field goal out of a timeout after UIC had tied it (he had only two points up to that point), and then NKU senior Jordan Garnett also hit a 3-point field goal to extend the lead to six in his first offensive possession after coming off the bench.
This was all part of an 8-0 run that found Northern Kentucky up 69-61 with three minutes to play.
But, just like the whole night, UIC battled back. Guard Tarkus Ferguson stole the ball and dunked on a run out with 1:04 remaining to make it 72-68 with the Norse still leading. But Northern Kentucky senior Lavone Holland II responded by hitting a contested point-blank shot and was fouled in the process. He missed the free-throw attempt but collected the rebound as the Flames surrendered some key offensive rebounds late and unsuccessfully played the foul game before succumbing 79-72.
“We made immature decisions,” McClain said. “We missed block outs on free throws, we just did some things that at some point we have to grow up and have somebody on that court that’s making sure everybody is locked in. That’s not being critical, we played hard and fought back into the game and like I said I give Northern Kentucky credit.”
The game began as competitively as it ended. NKU sophomore Dantez Walton tied the game at seven points apiece with 16:58 left in the first half with a three-point field goal. A long-range snipe was a rarity early, as 10 of the first 13 points from the Norse came in the painted area.
While the Norse dominated the paint, the Blue Demons had two turnovers on passes where the intended target had his head turned. The Flames turned the ball over eight times in the first half, continuing a troubling trend that has burned them all season long (15.2 turnovers per game).
The Flames had four blocks in the first half (they average 6.9 blocks per game), but NKU won most of the hustle battles outrebounding the Flames on the offensive glass 9-3 and on two occasions scrambling to recover loose balls then calling timeouts to retain possessions. Long scoring droughts and poor shot selection contributed to a first half where the Flames shot 32 percent from the field and found themselves down 41-26 at halftime.
“We weren’t moving the ball,” McClain said about the offense in the first half. “Tark ( Tarkus Ferguson) was making the right reads out of the ball screens, but then the ball was coming back the same direction instead of coming back the other way.”
Holland II led all scorers with 25 points on 7-for-15 from the field and two three-point field goals. The Norse shot 42.1 percent from three-point land and poured in 38 points in the paint as they escaped with a hard-fought win.
The Flames end the regular season with a showdown against Horizon League leader Wright State on Sunday. The game is at 5 p.m. at the UIC Pavilion.