CHICAGO- On Friday night the Illinois-Chicago Flames (17-13, 12-5 Horizon League) hosted the Northern Kentucky Norse (21-8, 15-3 HL) in a crucial game with Horizon League regular season championship implications. A win by the Flames would increase their chances of winning a share of the title, unfortunately the Norse would have other plans.
The start of the game was a back and forth affair for both teams. Heading into the first break at the 14 minute mark both teams were tied at 9. Unfortunately UIC would miss their next seven shots over the following eight minutes and found themselves trailing 27-16. NKU would finish the first half on a 14-10 run to take a 41-26 halftime lead.
The Flames only made 8-of-25 shots in the first 20 minutes. They started the second half on a 10-2 run, forcing the Norse to call a timeout with 16:42 left in regulation. After that timeout, the Flames would get back-to-back baskets by sophomore forward Jordan Blount and sophomore guard Marcus Ottey which cut the NKU lead to 43-40. Then with six minutes left to play, Ottey along with senior forward Tai Odiase, and sophomore guard Dominique Matthews led the Flames back by collectively scoring 14 points to tie the game at 61.
Unfortunately UIC couldn’t take advantage as the Norse took the game back by finishing on a 17-11 run and walked out of the UIC Pavilion with a 79-72 win.
“We dug a hole, we fought back hard, and we just couldn’t come up with the play when we needed to,” said UIC head coach Steve McClain in his post-game press conference.
Illinois-Chicago allowed Northern Kentucky to score 38 points in the paint, as well as 13 second chance points, and were outscored in bench points by the Norse 21-19. The Norse took full advantage of the Flames miscues on defense.
“We made immature decisions, we missed block outs on free throws…. We just did some things that at some point we just got to grow up on the court. They made shots and we didn’t,” said McClain.
Norse guard Lavone Holland led all scorers with 25 points. The Flames were led by the aforementioned Odiase, junior forward Dikembe Dixson, and sophomore guard Tarkus Ferguson who scored 14, 12 and 11 points respectively.
At the same time however UIC only made 40-percent of their field goals (25-of-62), 28-percent of their three-point attempts (6-of-21), and missed seven free throws (finished 16-of-23). As a result the Flames are no longer eligible to win the Horizon League crown, the last time UIC won their conference’s regular season trophy was back in 1998.
Despite the loss however, the turnaround under McClain is evident. The Flames went from just five wins two seasons ago, to just their fourth double-digit win season since 2013, and their first winning season since that same year when they played in the College Insider Tournament. The Flames this year could be the NIT tournament when all is said and done.
“I think this team is fun to watch, I think they’re fun to be a part of. And as you build a program, that’s what you’re trying to create,” McClain added.
The silver lining in all of this is that UIC will have a top-three seed in next week’s Horizon League Tournament in Detroit.