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“Juice” on the loose

High-flying Ottey ignites another Flames’ victory

By Mike Pankow

January 13, 2018

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC sophomore guard Marcus Ottey slams home a dunk in the first half against Green Bay on Friday night.

Marcus Ottey can fly.

Well, maybe not literally. The 6-foot-2 UIC sophomore guard took residence above the rim numerous times Friday night as he threw down three SportsCenter highlight dunks while finishing with 20 points as the Flames continued their ascent up the Horizon League standings with an 88-73 victory over Milwaukee.

With its third consecutive win, UIC moved into a third-place tie with Youngstown State in the conference behind Wright State and Northern Kentucky

Ottey continued his strong play, shooting 8-for-15 from the field whether it was attacking the rim or knocking down 3-pointers (he had two of those, as well).

The player nicknamed “Juice” hit double figures for the 13th time this season and leads the Flames (8-10, 3-2 Horizon) in scoring in conference play. Ottey is averaging 17.2 points on 55.1 percent shooting in his last five games.

Ottey’s confidence has grown by leaps and bounds, which has shown with his aggressiveness of attacking the rim.

“Last year I watched a lot of film, saying, ‘Oooh, I should’ve dunked that,’ ” Ottey said. “I keep telling myself when I get to the rim to dunk it.”

It was trial by fire for Ottey, who stepped up his game during the nine-game absence of starting point guard Tarkus Ferguson in December.

“It made Marcus grow up with that ball,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “In those games he had to control it. He’s got the mind-set that if doesn’t see somebody in front of him, then he’s going to attack that rim. It also helps when you’ve got guys in those corners that can drive out of those corners because (the defense) has got to make a decision.”

Dikembe Dixson scored 19 of his game-high 22 points in the second half to lead the Flames while Ferguson played his most complete game of the season with 15 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. Dominique Matthews added 11 points while contributing eight of those points during another big first half for UIC.

Bryce Nze had 17 points and nine rebounds to lead five players in double figures for the Panthers (9-10, 2-4), who have road wins over Iowa State and Northern Illinois this season.

Ottey hit a layup off nice feed from Ferguson and hit a 3-pointer to ignite a 15-4 run that helped the Flames open a 22-11 lead with 8:09 left in the first half.

Ottey then showed his springs with alley-oop dunk off another Ferguson assist and a slam off a baseline drive during another extended Flames run – this time, a 16-7 spurt that put UIC ahead 38-22 late with 1:13 before halftime.

Things were going so well for the Flames in the first half that a Ferguson post feed intended for Clint Robinson ended up getting deflected into the hands of Matthews, who drained a 3-pointer in front of the Milwaukee bench.

It was another strong team effort for the Flames, who shot 48.5 percent in the first half while holding the Panthers to just 27.6 percent in opening a 38-26 halftime lead.

“Once again our defense made our offense get going and we had the right mind-set on the defensive end,” McClain said. “It just flowed right into our offense.”

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC center Tai Odiase blocks the shot of Milwaukee’s Brett Prahl during the first half.

McClain wanted to return to what was successful against Milwaukee in the Flames’ two regular seasons wins last season and correct what was lacking in the teams’ Horizon League semifinal.

“One thing that we talked about was going back to last year in the conference tournament when the game was way too slow,” McClain said. “That’s what we talked about: We can’t allow this game to be too slow. I thought our guys did a great job of dictating that with our defense.”

Dixson looked NBA smooth during the early portion of the second half, hitting a trio of 3-pointers, two jumpers and a layup as the Flames outscored the Panthers 29-19 in the first eight minutes of the second half to open a 67-45 advantage. During that blitz, Ottey soared for his third dunk of the game, knifing down the lane and flying over Bryce Barnes for the slam.

Milwaukee countered with a 10-0 run, including 3-pointers by Carson Warren-Newsome and Brock Stull to cut it to 67-55, but Ferguson answered with a floater in the lane and Jacob Wiley scored a transition layup as the Flames eased the lead back into the mid-teens again.

The magic touch during this winning run has been the return of Ferguson, who played in his third contest since returning from a stress fracture in his right foot.

When he wasn’t finding his teammates for open shots, Ferguson rediscovered his scoring touch. After just three points combined on 1-for-7 shooting in his first two post-injury games, he found his confidence while driving to the basket, shooting 6-for-10 from the field.

“I’ve been in the gym a lot since the injury,” Ferguson said. “My shots haven’t been falling, but eventually they’re going to fall as long as I keep shooting. When my shot’s not falling, I plan on getting to the basket. I feel like that’s my best strategy.”

It’s a dramatic turnaround for the Flames since suffering blowout losses against Kentucky, Troy and Loyola several weeks ago in which the defense was shredded and embarrassed.

“We’ve got a lot of young players, we’ve got guys that didn’t play a year ago,” McClain said. “It doesn’t just happen overnight. I think they’ve had a commitment to play good defense. I think we’ve done a better job of coaching and adjusting what we’ve been doing a little bit. I think the individual improvement of each guy has made us a better team defensively.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: McClain said Ferguson is about “75 percent” in terms of his conditioning. He admitted that Ferguson probably a few too many minutes as he led the Flames with 33. … The Flames matched a season-low with 11 turnovers after committing 21 in the victory over Green Bay on Wednesday. McClain explained that the team sometimes can pile up the turnovers because of the uptempo pace he prefers. “We don’t play slow offensively and we’re going to make some mistakes when we’re going full speed. (Milwaukee was) guarding pretty hard and we did a good job of fighting through that.” … Sophomore forward Jordan Blount played a steady game, scoring eight points on 4-for-5 shooting, five rebounds and three assists with just two turnovers. … UIC held Stull, Milwaukee’s leading scorer, to 11 points on 5-for-10 shooting. Stull scored six points in the first seven minutes of the game, but did score for the next 24 minutes when the Flames broke the game wide open. “We know his tactics and what he likes to do,” Ottey said. “We were just locked to him defensively.” … UIC won two of three meetings last season, but lost to the Panthers 74-68 in the 2017 Horizon League semifinal at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. … The Flames wrap up their three-game homestand Monday night against conference favorite Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies are off to a disappointing 3-3 league start.

POSTGAME VIDEOS:

In other recent news:
UIC 84, Green Bay 73: Helping hand (1/11/18)
UIC 70, IUPUI 65: Hard-earned victory (1/7/18)
Northern Kentucky 86, UIC 51: Rock bottom (1/2/18)
Wright State 65, UIC 61: Right through their fingers (12/28/17)
UIC 84, Trinity Christian 45: Tandem offense (12/26/17)
Northern Illinois 69, UIC 63: State of disappointment (12/22/17)
Illinois State 71, UIC 70: Cruel road (12/20/17)
UIC 76, Dartmouth 60: Point made (12/16/17)