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Flames exhale, snap 9-game skid

SCRAPPY EFFORT GETS IT DONE VS. YSU

February 7, 2010

Whoosh! photo

UIC guard Robo Kreps reaches for a loose ball in the first half on Saturday as teammate Spencer Stewart (left) and YSU’s Ashen Ward look on.

Since the calendar turned to 2010, the UIC Flames endured a rough ride. However, it was nothing that a home game with an almost equally slumping Youngstown State squad couldn’t cure.

An effort loaded with hustle and team play finally helped the Flames snap a nine-game losing streak with a 74-68 win over the Penguins at the Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

Sophomore guard Zavion Neely posted his second straight strong game with 23 points and four steals and junior guard Robo Kreps added 20 points and four steals for UIC (6-17, 2-11 Horizon League).

The Flames led by as many as 17 points in the second half, thanks to winning the rebound battle 37-36, grabbing 12 steals and shooting 42 percent for the game.

“I know we’ve been struggling as of late, but we’ve been getting a lot better day-by-day,” Kreps said. “Tonight I thought we were scrappier than them. We need to do that from here on out.”

The team breathed a collective sigh of relief after winning for the first time since a 60-56 triumph over Detroit on Dec. 31.

“It feels good. Any win is a good win,” said UIC senior forward Jeremy Buttell, who showed his grit by grabbing a game-high 11 rebounds to go with nine points. “We’ve been saying that once we get going, anything can happen. I think this helped us out mentally and physically, we needed it.”

Flames coach Jimmy Collins got into the excitement as well. After Buttell dove to the floor to corral a loose ball and call timeout with 3:25 left in the first half, Collins led the enthusiastic march off the bench.

“Those are the things we haven’t exhibited a lot of this year—the toughness, the scrappiness,” Collins said. “Most teams that we’ve lost to this season merely outscrapped us. They got second-chance shots and long rebounds. Had we been doing that all year, our record could be considerably different. You can’t beat anybody when you give them that many extra opportunities.”

UIC came out cooking, using a 15-6 run to open a 29-14 lead with 6:37 left in the opening half. Kreps and backup center Louis Green each scored four points during the spurt and Chris Buchanan finished the flurry with a 15-foot jumper.

The Flames took a 37-24 lead into intermission after Spencer Stewart hit a turnaround jumper with 3.7 seconds left in the half, but UIC did not want to get overconfident with one of its largest leads of the season.

“When we got into the locker room, we pretty much said the score was 0-0,” Neely said. “We’ve been in situations where we fell apart in the second half. We knew we had to keep together and finish the second half strong.”

The Flames appeared like they were going to run away, taking a 48-31 lead on Kreps’ three-point basket with 15:39, but the Penguins (8-15, 2-11) crawled back into the contest.

DeAndre Mays (22 points) and Vytas Sulskis (20 points) connected on back-to-back threes to close YSU’s deficit to three at 57-54 with 5:12 left.

The Flames kept the lead between three and eight points over the next four minutes.

Mays tried to give the Penguins one last hope, converting a three-point play with 31.3 seconds to play, but UIC closed out the game with free throws and two easy layups by Kreps after beating pressure.

Most of the Flames weren’t used to having to endure such a funk, but Kreps believes good with come out of it.

“It was something new for me, but I think we’ve learned from it,” Kreps said. “Getting this win got the monkey off our backs. We’re a tougher team for it. That’s definitely going to help us.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: Junior forward Brad Birton missed his second straight game with a left shoulder injury, while senior guard Kris Harris was not with the team for the fifth consecutive game because of a personal matter. … Junior K.C. Robbins was whistled for a technical foul with 12:22 left in the second half after he voiced his displeasure with an offensive foul call. … Stewart had a team-high seven assists. … Numerous former Flames (including Armond Williams, Martell Bailey, Theandre Kimbrough, Cory Little and Jordan Kardos among many others) returned to the Pavilion for the annual alumni game, which was held before Saturday's contest. For a photo, click here.

In other recent news:
Shakeup can’t end Flames’ slide (vs. Cleveland St.) (2/5/10)
Close, but no cigar for Flames (at Detroit) (1/31/10)
Deep funk continues (at Wright St.) (1/29/10)
Hayward's star continues to rise (vs. Butler) (1/23/10)
Robbins emerges, but Crusaders too tough (vs. Valpo) (1/22/10)
McCammon puts daggers in Flames (vs. Loyola, plus roster news) (1/15/10)
Road still unkind to Flames (at Cleveland St.) (1/10/10)
Buttell's big night can't save UIC (at Youngstown St.) (1/8/10)
Flames look listless, lost (vs. Wright St.) (1/3/10)
Kreps gets free ride as Flames beat Titans (vs. Detroit) (12/31/09)