The University of Illinois at Chicago Flames (17-14, 12-6) saved the toughest section of their schedule for the last weekend of the regular season.
Dates against the Horizon League-leading Northern Kentucky Norse on Friday night and then second-place Wright State on Sunday afternoon was a difficult way for the Flames to end the regular season. After a competitive effort against Northern Kentucky that ended with a 79-72 defeat, the Flames dropped another gritty, competitive game 88-81 against the Wright State Raiders (22-9, 14-4) on Sunday afternoon.
But it was far from a waste of a weekend.
“Now we have tape on the two best teams and we can go back and watch what we made mistakes on,” UIC Flames senior Tai Odiase said. “We know what to do next time.”
Senior Clint Robinson added his positive spin on the loss.
“I believe it gave us a good look at where we are at as a team, and where we need to improve,” Robinson said.
With an at-large bid in the NCAA tournament out of the question, the Flames turn their attention to the Little Caesars Horizon League Championship in Detroit next weekend. There, they will look to win the tournament and earn an automatic NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2004. They will enter as a three seed and will play the University of Milwaukee next Sunday.
“I don’t think there’s any question [that playing the two best teams this weekend was a good tune-up for the Horizon League tournament],” UIC head coach Steve McClain said. “That’s why you saw us come out after the Northern Kentucky game and be so much better in the first half of this game. You can get a fallacy that’s it’s easy. Then when you play the better teams it’s not easy. “
One part of this afternoon that the Flames hope carries over to the Horizon League tournament is the hot first half start. When the dust cleared in the first half, the Flames led 51-43.
— UIC FL🔥MES 🏀 (@UICFlamesMBB) February 25, 2018
Their shooting was about as hot as their Flame mascot, as UIC finished 65.6 percent from the field and 5-for-7 from the 3-point line. Sophomores Dikembe Dixson and Tarkus Ferguson led the way in the scoring column with 11 points apiece in the half.
After falling behind by eight points, Wright State came out of halftime refocused, quickly erasing UIC’s advantage to just one point after less than two minutes of playing time. The Raiders tied it at 55 at the 15:55 mark and reclaimed the lead at the 14:43 mark on a 3-point field goal from their leading scorer Grant Benzinger.
With big men Jordan Blount and Robinson both in foul trouble and on the bench for most of the second half, McClain had to utilize a three or four guard lineup with Odiase at center. The Flames and Raiders battled the rest of the half, with neither team able to build more than a five point advantage on the other. But with the Flames mostly using a guard-heavy lineup, the Raiders eventually wore down the Flames by winning the offensive rebounding battle 18-9.
Not having the 6’8″ forward Blount hurt, according to McClain.
“He’s a crucial part of what we do both offensively and defensively,” McClain said about missing Blount. “I thought Michael Diggins stepped up and did a lot of great things. But it no question hurt us not having him (Blount) on the court. He’s a double figure rebounder and that’s where not having him in there really hurt us.”
Late-game execution eluded the Flames as well. With just under two minutes to play, Wright State big man Loudon Love methodically backed down Odiase, broke to the lane, then turned quickly towards the left block just in time for Odiase to block his shot. But Wright State secured the loose ball and another rebound later in the possession as they concluded that trip down the floor with Everett Winchester nailing a floater to make it 84-81 Wright State with 56 seconds to play.
On the next possession, Ferguson had the ball knocked away from him as he dribbled hard left into traffic. Winchester then hit another floater on the next possession to make it 86-81 Raiders with 20 second remaining, and then sophomore guard Marcus Ottey missed everything on his own floater to put the game out of reach for the Flames.