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A happy new year

Flames win 5th straight, 8th of 9, with superb effort

By Mike Pankow

February 3, 2018

Mike Pankow/Whoosh! file photo

UIC’s Tai Odiase scored 19 points on 8-for-8 from the field in Friday night’s victory over Oakland.

What a difference a month makes.

When the calendar flipped from 2017 to 2018, UIC was 5-10 and 0-2 in the Horizon League and quite possibly on the verge of a lost season. A month later, the Flames look like an entirely different team and a serious contender for the conference title.

UIC took another step toward greatness by improving to 8-1 in the calendar year with their most prominent victory of the season, with an impressive 79-73 win Friday night over preseason favorite Oakland at the O’rena in Rochester, Mich.

The main contributing factor for the latest victory was the defense, which helped the Flames (13-11, 8-3 Horizon) pull within one game of first place behind Wright State and Northern Kentucky.

The Flames held Oakland to 36.5 percent shooting and dominated the glass, outrebounding the Grizzlies 45-34, in recording their fifth consecutive road victory after starting 0-7 away from home.

“Your defense goes with you and we’re learning that,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “One thing about teams that win, they don’t any differently at home than they do on the road.”

UIC smothered Oakland’s Kendrick Nunn, limiting the former Simeon and Illinois star to just 3-for-22 from the field. Nunn finished with 20 points, but he had to earn them by hitting 13 of 16 free throws, to lead the Golden Grizzlies (14-10, 6-5), who lost to the Flames for the first time ever in the regular season.

Nunn was a huge factor in the teams’ first meeting back on Jan. 15, a 78-68 Oakland win at the UIC Pavilion, the Flames’ only loss in 2018.

“Our motivation came from the first (meeting). Nunn had (32) in that game,” senior center Tai Odiase said. “We really came in here with a defensive mindset, trying to shut him down and not let others get off. I think we did that tonight.”

McClain and the Flames had a plan for slowing down the nation’s second-leading scorer, who entered Friday night averaging over 26 points per game.

“Just to not let anything be easy,” McClain said. “I thought Marcus Ottey did an unbelievable job and Godwin (Boahen) came in and got him, Dom (Matthews) had him. A lot of different guys guarded him and I thought our bigs did a job of switching out.”

Odiase was nearly flawless, scoring 19 points on 8-for-8 from the field and 3-for-5 from the free-throw with five rebounds and three blocked shots, to lead the Flames (13-11, 8-3 Horizon), who now sit just one game out of first place behind Wright State and Northern Kentucky.

Boahen and Ottey also were strong offensively. Boahen continued his hot run off the bench with 16 points while shooting 5-for-8, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range.

Ottey scored 15 points with his usual attacking, driving style while Tarkus Ferguson stuffed the stat sheet with 13 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.

UIC also won despite some sloppy ballhandling at times. The Flames finished with 20 turnovers, but their defense helped minimize the damage as Oakland scored just 19 points off those miscues.

“The one thing I worried about coming into this game is turning the ball over and could we win if we did,” McClain said. “They proved me wrong. We turned it over, but we still won the game.”

Early on the Flames couldn’t stay out of their own way, turning the ball over as if it was a hot potato, so the game was a nip-and-tuck affair for about the first 12 minutes.

With UIC ahead 17-16 with 7:59 left, Matthews and Boahen hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to stretch the lead to seven.

After Oakland trimmed the margin back to three, the Flames went on a 10-2 run started by Feguson’s old-fashioned three-point play. Odiase also had a dunk and Ottey drilled a 3-pointer to help UIC open its largest lead of the half at 37-26.

Boahen knocked down another 3 with just over a minute remaining to give the Flames a 40-30 lead at intermission.

“Offensively at times we were really good and at times we were really impatient,” McClain said. “Overall, a great effort out of everybody on the court. Once again we had different guys scoring tonight.”

UIC survived another flurry of turnovers early in the second half to remain ahead for the duration of the game. The Grizzlies pulled to within one possession on several occasions, but the Flames always had an answer.

When Nunn hit his first and only 3-pointer of the game to pull Oakland to within 54-52 with 11:10 left, Boahen answered almost immediately with a cold-blooded 3 to push the Flames’ lead back to five.

Nick Daniels nailed a 3-pointer with 2:11 left as Oakland pulled to within 71-69. Clint Robinson, who was shooting 80 percent from the foul line, missed a pair, leaving the door open for the Grizzlies to tie or take the lead, but they never got a shot as Ottey came up with a steal and was fouled by Nunn going up a layup at the other end.

Ottey hit a pair of free throws and after Jalen Hayes missed a 3-pointer, Odiase hit short jumper to give the Flames a 75-69 lead with just under a minute to play. The Grizzlies never got closer than four after that.

This was easily the most important regular season win for the Flames in McClain’s three-year tenure as coach.

“This is a really big win for us,” Odiase said. “They’re one of the top teams in the Horizon League. We just came out here and stuck to our principles.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: Boahen remained sizzling hot for UIC. He has made 17 of his last 22 3-point attempts (77 percent) and has averaged 12.8 points over his last six games. … Robinson tied a career-high with 10 rebounds while sophomore Jordan Blount grabbed nine rebounds, one shy of his fourth straight double-digit game in that category. … UIC held Oakland to 3-for-22 on 3-pointers. … Martez Walker led the Grizzlies with 21 points and Hayes added 15, meaning the Big 3 of Nunn, Walker and Hayes combined for 56 of Oakland’s 73 points. … Flames coach Steve McClain was called for a questionable technical foul when he questioned an official about a non-call with 5:09 left. Nunn actually missed both technical free throws. … The Flames clinched their first winning road record in conference play since 2003-04 with their fifth win in seven games away from home with just two road contests remaining in league play. … The fifth straight win overall is UIC’s longest streak since a eight-game run in 2012-13 and the fifth consecutive road win is the most since the 2003-04 season (seven). … Dikembe Dixson was 0-for-4 from the field and was held scoreless for the first time in his Flames career. … With the win, UIC is 2-13 all-time against Oakland. The Flames’ other win in the series came in the quarterfinals of the 2015 Horizon League tournament at Valparaiso.

POSTGAME VIDEOS (courtesy UIC Flames on YouTube):

In other recent news:
UIC 74, Milwaukee 56: Bench brigade gets it done (1/30/18)
UIC 71, IUPUI 62: Pluck of the Irish (1/28/18)
UIC 87, Cleveland State 80: Blount pushes Flames (1/21/18)
UIC 92, Youngstown State 78: Block party (1/19/18)
Oakland 78, UIC 68: Treacherous trio (1/16/18)
UIC 88, Milwaukee 73: “Juice” on the loose (1/13/18)
UIC 84, Green Bay 73: Helping hand (1/11/18)
UIC 70, IUPUI 65: Hard-earned victory (1/7/18)