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Deep impact

Flames’ depth lifts them to 7th straight victory

By Mike Pankow

February 9, 2018

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC forward Dikembe Dixson celebrates after hitting a layup while being fouled in the first half.

UIC is hottest basketball team in the Horizon League and yet no Flame has won a weekly award from the conference this season.

The Flames’ trademark as of late has been their depth with different players stepping up in each game.

Dikembe Dixson scored 22 points to lead four players in double figures while Tarkus Ferguson produced despite scoring just two points by handing out 10 assists and grabbing a team-high eight rebounds as UIC won its seventh straight and 10th in 11 games Thursday night with a 100-75 victory over Youngstown State at the Pavilion.

The Flames (15-11, 10-3) shot 52.4 percent while remaining one game behind Wright State and Northern Kentucky for the top spot in the Horizon with five regular-season games left.

“More than anything, we’re doing a better job of sharing the basketball,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “We had 24 assists on the night. Tark didn’t score tonight, the other night he was in double figures. It doesn’t matter. It’s about winning the game.”

Redshirt sophomore guard Dominique Matthews had one of the better games this season, finishing with 14 points, including four 3-pointers.

“We’re just coming together as whole,” Matthews said. “We’ve got a lot of talent in this group. We know what we can do. It’s all starting to come together.”

A big piece of that talent is 6-foot-9 senior center Tai Odiase, who had 16 points, six rebounds and six blocked shots. He got the Flames going by scoring UIC’s first six points, including a jump hook just 10 seconds into the game.

“Tai was demanding the basketball in there,” McClain said. “He was making moves with force. When he does that, he gives us a whole different option in there that’s hard for people to deal with.”

Dixson, who posted his second consecutive game of 20-plus points after going scoreless against Oakland, poured in seven points during a 25-9 run that put the Flames up 27-15.

McClain says it’s not all about point production for his 6-7 sophomore star and that’s a big part of what has made the Flames so good lately.

“Dikembe has gotten so much better defensively, so much better at other things,” McClain said. “Everybody worries about his scoring. Some nights it’s just not there. The good thing is we’ve got a team where everybody else can step up and do it. That’s what

I try to keep these guys focused on. This team can be as good as they want to be.”

Matthews also had two 3-pointers in that early run.

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC’s Jordan Blount, left, and Dikembe Dixson double-team Youngstown State’s Garrett Covington in the first half.

The Penguins (6-20, 4-9) offered some resistance, pulling to within 37-30 with 2:02 left in the first half, but the Flames got a big boost from yet another source as 6-8 freshman forward Michael Diggins scored seven points within a minute to fuel a 10-4 burst to close the period.

“Mike just comes in and takes what the game gives him,” McClain said. “He brings energy on defense. On offense, he’s learning to cut and find angles and now Tark is getting confidence in him that he’ll be in the right position.”

Dixson hit a trio of free throws after being fouled on a 3-pointer with one-tenth of a second left to give UIC a 47-34 lead at intermission.

The Flames left little doubt right at the start of the second half as Marcus Ottey (19 points) drained a 3-pointer on the first possession and scored seven points during an 11-4 run that opened a 20-point lead. Dixson also had a steal and a dunk to help fuel the momentum.

“We always talk about the starting the first four minutes of each half with our defense,” Dixson said.

YSU pulled to within 67-53 on Jaylen Benton’s steal and layup, but freshman forward Jacob Wiley answered with a layup and the red-hot shooting Godwin Boahen knocked a 3-pointer to push UIC’s lead back to 19.

The Flames finished the game in style, hitting triple digits for the first time in a little over a year, on Jordan Blount’s putback basket with 24.2 seconds remaining.

“This group understands right now that it’s about one game at a time,” McClain said. “I told them, ‘Don’t get bored with winning. Winning is hard.’ You’ve got to bring that mentality every day.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: After setting the Pavilion record with 44 points last season, YSU’s Cameron Morse scored 26 points and hit six 3-pointers, but most of the damage came when the game was well in hand. … McClain said the only negative of the game was the YSU’s offensive rebounding. The Penguins outrebounded the Flames 45-38, including 23-10 on the offensive end. However, YSU had just 14 second-chance points. … A couple of positive stats: The Flames held the Penguins to 37.3 percent shooting and committed a season-low nine turnovers. … Boahen was 3-for-5 from 3-point range and is now 22-for-31 from downtown (71 percent) in the last eight games. … Reserve center Clint Robinson wasn’t at the arena as he recovers from the flu. … UIC clinched its first winning conference record since the 2003-04 season when the Flames were 12-4 in the Horizon League.

POSTGAME VIDEOS:

In other recent news:
UIC 78, Detroit Mercy 69: Super streakin’ (2/5/18)
UIC 79, Oakland 73: A happy new year (2/3/18)
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)