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Hard-earned victory

Hustle, grit help Flames rally from down 13 on road

By Mike Pankow

January 7, 2018

Mike Pankow/Whoosh! file photo

Marcus Ottey scored 19 points in helping UIC rally from a 13-point deficit against IUPUI on Thursday night.

As if his life depended on it, Jordan Blount cradled the ball in his arms and wouldn’t let it go.

Just a few minutes after turning his ankle and leaving the game briefly in the second half Thursday night, the UIC sophomore forward showed a grit that has been lacking from the Flames for most of the season.

Blount’s determination epitomized his team’s heightened hustle during the Flames’ 70-65 win over IUPUI at Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis – UIC’s first road victory of the season and the Flames’ first win in Horizon League play.

In what has been a frustrating season for UIC, the Flames (6-10, 1-2 Horizon League) put together a second-half performance fitting of a team picked to finish near the top of the conference.

“I thought maybe for the first time this season we showed some toughness, because things weren’t going well for us in the first half,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “We fought back, got it to a manageable (deficit) at halftime. In the second half, I felt like we needed to change the game. We started pressing, we started making the game go faster and that seemed to get our offense going. I was really proud of how they stayed together. It was a tight game and we’ve struggled in some of those.”

Dikembe Dixson and Marcus Ottey scored 19 points apiece for the Flames, who shot 48.8 percent from the field in breaking an 11-game road losing streak dating to last season.

Ottey continued his stellar play from recent weeks, shooting 7-for-9 from the field and 5-for-6 from the free-throw. He is averaging 15.9 points on 59.7 percent shooting over his last seven games and has registered double-figure scoring in 11 of 16 games this season.

“He’s made better decisions,” McClain said of the sophomore guard from Ajax, Ontario. “His shot selection has improved. He knows when to shoot and when not to. Then we’ve tried to put him in positions where he feels really good. He’s growing up every game. He’s done a great job of adapting.”

UIC was superb in all facets of its game in the second half while rallying from a seven-point halftime deficit.

The Flames, who trailed by as many as 13 in the first half, shut down IUPUI in the second half, holding the Jaguars to 29.2 percent shooting (7-for-24) in the final 20 minutes while getting some clutch offense.

Blount’s tie-up came in the midst of a 16-4 run down the stretch for the Flames.

Even though the play resulted in a held ball, which went to the Jaguars because of the possession arrow, it fired up the Flames bench and continued UIC’s momentum in the final minutes.

Down 55-50 after four free throws by Aaron Brennan, the Flames went to work, scoring on back-to-back possessions, including a mid-range jumper by Godwin Boahen and layup by Blount to cut the deficit to one with 5:27 remaining.

Ottey then came up with a steal and was fouled on the drive. He made two free throws to give UIC its first lead of the night at 56-55 with 4:47 left.

After Nick Rogers split a pair of free throws, the Flames took the lead for good.

Senior center Tai Odiase scored on a short hook off a nice interior feed from Dominique Matthews for a 58-56 lead. Odiase then drew a charge from T.J. Henderson on the other end.

Dixson made it 60-56 with two free throws after he was fouled on a drive with 4:01 to play.

After IUPUI crept to within 60-59, the Flames scored the next six points. Odiase hit two free throws for a three-point lead with 1:13 left. Ottey then got another steal off the Flames’ pressure defense.

After a timeout, Ottey knifed through the lane and hit a runner for a 66-61 lead with 45.6 seconds left and the Jaguars would get no closer than three after that.

UIC got off a slow start in the first half, trailing 24-11 after a three-point play by Brennan. The Flames shot 57.9 percent in the opening 20 minutes, but they trailed 41-34 at the break because of 12 first-half turnovers that led to 16 Jaguars points.

In the second half, the Flames employed more of their 1-3-1 defense and changed the tempo and momentum of the contest.

“They knew we had to create a tempo, something different,” McClain said. “The game wasn’t at a good flow for us. It’s something we can do more as we get everybody back healthy. It was a credit to our guys. We made simple plays and got to the free-throw line and did a good job at the line.”

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

Tarkus Ferguson

WELCOME BACK: Just a couple of days after being cleared to practice, Flames sophomore point guard Tarkus Ferguson returned to the starting lineup after missing a month of action (nine games) due to a stress fracture in his right foot.

Ferguson looked rusty in his return, struggling in 18 minutes of action. He finished with three points, three rebounds and two assists. He had a game-high six turnovers and picked a technical foul in the second half after tossing his headband in frustration following a ticky-tack foul call while jousting for position on a rebound with 6:56 left in the second half.

“The kid hasn’t practiced for five weeks and he went through two workouts with no contact,” McClain said. “We were told that he could play and that it was going to be limited minutes. He got out there and got beat around a little bit, got frustrated. Now that’s over with and he’ll get back in the flow and that makes us a lot better.”

While Ferguson’s numbers didn’t appear to help his team’s cause on this night, his mere presence represented hope for the second half of the season. The Flames were 3-6 in Ferguson's absence.

FLAMES FLICKERS: Dixson became the 22nd player in UIC history to reach the 1,000-point mark for his career. He did it in just 56 games. … Odiase blocked four shots against the Jaguars, giving him 297 for his career with the Flames. He stands just 12 behind the Horizon League career record of 309, held by Youngstown State’s Damian Eargle. … UIC improved to 4-0 all-time against IUPUI after winning the first Horizon League meeting between the schools. … Blount finished with four points, seven rebounds and four assists in 35 minutes.

POSTGAME VIDEO (courtesy UIC Flames on YouTube):

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