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Stewart helps put Flames in cruise control

POINT GUARD LEADS 2ND-HALF SURGE

February 12, 2008 (with contributions from John Jaramillo)

Photo: Steve Woltmann/UIC Athletics

The Flames have won nine consecutive games when Spencer Stewart starts at the point.

Running a finely-tuned offense is like driving a luxury car.

UIC’s vehicle got plenty of miles to the gallon and it was all because of sophomore point guard Spencer Stewart.

Stewart scored 11 points – all in the second half – and handed out six assists as the Flames routed Valparaiso 77-53 at the UIC Pavilion on Monday night.

Whenever you win a game and you play a game like this, my credit goes to Spencer [Stewart],” UIC coach Jimmy Collins said. “I’m always going to give credit to my point guard who controls things out there, had people go where they’re supposed to go.

“I know that when he’s out there, our motor runs smooth. It’s like when he’s not there it’s like having a Cadillac with no steering wheel; we don’t know where the heck we’re going. But when he’s out there he does a great job of running the ballclub.”

The Flames (14-10, 8-5 Horizon League) won their fourth straight and moved into fourth place by themselves. UIC has now won nine straight games with Stewart in the starting lineup.

Valparaiso (14-10, 5-7), who had lost three straight contests coming into the Pavilion, was hanging tough, trailing just 34-30 at halftime. However, Stewart and his backcourt running mate Josh Mayo put the kibosh on the Crusaders’ plans to snap their skid.

The Flames made their first six three-point shots of the second half, which included three treys from Stewart, who is used to setting up others to score.

Stewart nailed triples on back-to-back possessions to put the Flames up 40-32, but Valpo closed to within two points after Samuel Haanpaa hit a three of his own.

The Flames then went on an 11-0 run, capped by Stewart’s third three-pointer of the stanza to take a 51-38 advantage.

“Mayo was coming off the ball screen and lot of attention was going to him, so when my guy came off he just found me for open shots, and I was fortunate to hit,” Stewart said. “I missed my first two in the first half, which was discouraging, but I know Mayo does a good job at knowing what good shots to take and then when to find open guys.”

Mayo also did some long-range shooting, nailing three three-pointers of his own. His third triple of the half gave UIC a commanding 60-41 advantage. The Flames led by as many as 28 in the second half.

Mayo credits the Flames’ transition game and fast-breaking with opening up better opportunities to score in the second half.

“We just pushed the ball a lot better in the second half and we just made a couple of more shots than we did in the first half,” Mayo said.

Mayo led the Flames with 18 points to go with five rebounds and four assists.

Photo: Steve Woltmann/UIC Athletics

Scott VanderMeer picked up his offense with 13 points against Valpo to go along with his trademark defense.

Junior center Scott VanderMeer bounced back from his 1-for-9 shooting night at Loyola with a strong all-around game, posting 13 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots. VanderMeer was 3-for-6 from the field and 7-for-10 from the free-throw line.

“Scott was dwelling about the Loyola game in practice,” Collins said on WIND-AM 560 after the game. “I told him that he’s got to move on. Come get the ball and deliver.”

The tale of this victory would be inaccurate without saying that all of the Flames’ role players contributed. UIC had 19 assists on 28 field goals and the Flames shot 54 percent from the field.

“[UIC] moved the ball, they handled the basketball well, shot the ball exceedingly well, and especially from the three-point line,” Valparaiso coach Homer Drew said.

Eight of the 10 Flames’ regulars scored at least five points, including Karl White Jr. (eight), Robert Bush and Jovan Ignjatovic (six each) and Jeremy Buttell and Jermaine Dailey (five apiece).

“I thought we’ve been gradually chipping away and trying to get our team play as such where we’re able to move the ball, we’re able to hit the guys who’s hot, we’re able to rebound a little bit better and we’re able to play better defense,” Collins said.

The Flames’ defense did their part as well, forcing 16 turnovers and limiting the Crusaders to just 35 percent shooting for the game.

“I think our guards did their best on defense,” VanderMeer said. “They limited their shots. Sometimes they drove it to me but I was there to block it or they were shooting over me. But the best thing we did today was limiting them to one shot.”

In turn, the stout defense oftentimes turned into instant offense.

“[UIC] did a good job in transition,” Drew said. “They really pushed the ball on us and we just could not keep up with the quickness, gave them easy looks and gave them easy baskets.”

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Shawn Huff had 14 of his 19 points in the first half to help keep Valpo close for awhile.

Valparaiso, who had some players feeling ill, including three-point marksman Haanpaa, kept it close early. The Crusaders stormed out to an 8-3 lead after two threes by Shawn Huff.

The Flames turned around and scored the next 10 points to grab the lead and eventually built the advantage to 25-14 on a three-pointer by Tori Boyd.

Valpo countered with a flurry of its own to pull into a 30-30 tie late in the first half. Niles West graduate Jarryd Loyd tallied 12 points and Huff scored 14 in the opening period.

Huff ended up with a game-high 19 points, but he did not score in the final 17 minutes of the contest. Loyd finished with 14.

“There’s only a couple of guys playing healthy for us,” Huff said. “When they figure that out and they just start keying in on us, that makes it more difficult to get open shots.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: At the conclusion of the postgame press conference, Daily Herald reporter Lindsey Willhite wanted Collins to continue his “Cadillac” analogy and talk about how Stewart was the motor.

Collins’ response? “Spencer isn’t the motor; he’s the steering wheel. I’m the motor,” he said laughing. …

UIC is now 12-4 with Stewart as a starter this season and 18-10 in his two seasons. …

For only the second time this season, all 14 players on the Flames’ roster saw action. Walk-ons Ebenezer Noonoo, Alex Tkaczuk, Jimmy Harding and Humberto Huerta all played in the final two minutes. Noonoo had an assist on an Ignjatovic bucket. …

The Flames are still just a half-game behind third-place Cleveland State and just one game behind second-place Wright State. The top two finishers in the Horizon League regular season receive byes to the tournament semifinals.

UP NEXT: UIC hits the road for two games, starting with a trip to Detroit on Thursday night.

The Titans, who are being coached by Kevin Mondro on an interim basis while Perry Watson is on leave, are suffering through their worst season over 15 years. Detroit is dead last in the league at 5-18 and 1-12 in the conference.

The Titans have lost 16 of 17 after a 4-2 start with that only victory coming against Milwaukee on Jan. 31.

Senior guard Jon Goode leads the Horizon League in scoring at 19.4 points per game. He averages 21.5 points in Horizon League games.

UIC trailed by 11 in the first half during the two teams’ first meeting at the Pavilion on Jan. 19, but the Flames rallied for a 75-65 win as Bush and Robert Kreps each scored 17 points to pace five players in double figures.

The game tips off at 6:35 p.m. Central time on Thursday from Calihan Hall in Detroit. Coverage is available with video streaming available on the Horizon League Network and audio is available on WIND-AM 560.

In other recent news:
Flames heating up, finish up sweep of Ramblers (2/10/08)
Hoops still close to Granderson's heart (plus Loyola preview) (2/8/08)
Flames get paired with Northern Iowa for BracketBuster (2/5/08)
Another efficient game for Mayo (vs. YSU) (2/3/08)
Inside-out combo lifts Flames (vs. CSU) (2/1/08)
Freshman boosts Bulldogs past Flames (at Butler) (1/27/08)
UIC lets road win slip away at Valpo (Stewart retruns) (1/25/08)
Mayo, Flames three-mendous (Valpo preview) (1/24/08)
Balance helps Flames bounce back (vs. Detroit) (1/20/08)
Perfect home record suffers Brown-out (vs. Wright State) (1/18/08)
Finding success halfway around the world (A. Williams, Bowen, Dailey) (1/16/08)