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Rising up

Flames sniffing Horizon title after blowing past Titans

By Mike Pankow

February 21, 2018

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC’s Marcus Ottey blows past Detroit Mercy’s Cole Long for a layup in the first half.

Despite how well UIC has been playing since the calendar flipped to 2018, coach Steve McClain knows one bad night can lead to an all-too-early ouster from the upcoming Horizon League tournament.

The Flames fell behind by 12 early to an underachieving Detroit Mercy squad before righting the ship with another total team effort in a 94-87 victory Monday night at the UIC Pavilion.

Sophomores Dikembe Dixson and Marcus Ottey each scored 20 points while classmate Jordan Blount contributed 15 points and 10 rebounds for the Flames (17-12, 12-4 Horizon), who fell behind 27-15 after allowing six 3-pointers in the first 9:33 of the game.

“Our defensive intensity got better,” McClain said. “We weren’t guarding like we were supposed to guard. That’s just having mind-set that you have to do it every night. You take a night off and you can get beat. It’s human nature and we’ve got to grow through that.”

With just two games left, UIC knows its path to the No. 1 seed and at least a share of the Horizon League regular season championship. The Flames need to win their final two games against Northern Kentucky on Friday and Wright State on Sunday and have WSU lose to IUPUI in a Friday matinee in Indianapolis. It would be UIC’s first regular-season conference title since 1997-98 when it shared the crown with Detroit Mercy.

Dixson started a 25-7 blitz with a 12-foot jumper and capped it with a 3-pointer, scoring seven points in the run, which also included contributions from seven other players. Freshman Michael Diggins, who finished with a career-high 11 points, drilled a 3 as part of the burst.

“I guess it’s the confidence my teammates have in me,” said Diggins of his progression in conference play. “They see me in practice knocking down shots. That’s what translated into the game today.”

The Flames took a 46-40 lead into halftime, but the Titans (8-21, 4-12), who have endured some injuries over the last few weeks but had most of their roster available Monday, didn’t quit.

Detroit Mercy regained the lead at 56-54 on a 3-pointer by Kameron Chatman (game-high 30 points) with 15:49 remaining.

“Learning to win is hard to do,” McClain said. “Players look at records. I don’t ever look at records. Detroit is coming in here playing really well. They’re going to be hard for somebody to deal with in the tournament. I thought we came out a little bit flat. It was amazing, because I thought we were sharper in shootaround than we’ve been in four weeks.”

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC freshman Michael Diggins scored a career-high 11 points against Detroit Mercy.

Rochon Prince hit a pair of free throws to put the Titans up 58-57 before back-to-back layups by Dixson and Blount started another big Flames run.

“We made some changes, got some different guys in the game and it gave us more boost,” McClain said. “Then we got the game back right and got ahead.”

Blount scored seven points and Dominique Matthews and Diggins hit 3-pointers as the Flames pushed the lead to 10 at 72-62 with 9:37 left.

After Josh McFolley hit a 3-pointer, the Flames blasted the door down with a 12-2 run that featured five points from Tarkus Ferguson and four consecutive points by reserve center Clint Robinson for an 84-67 lead with 5:16 to go.

Ottey credited the Flames’ defense with helping to turn the momentum.

“Defensively, I was really locked in on their guards,” Ottey said. “When we play defense like that and pressure them a lot, everything else falls into place.”

The Titans made a little bit of a comeback late, but they could never get closer than seven.

With the potential of grabbing at least a share of the Horizon League title by the end of the weekend, Ottey gave the company line of not looking too far ahead.

“Just look at it one game at a time,” Ottey said. “We take care of each game, do what we’re supposed to do to win, then we’ll be OK.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: Ottey reached the 20-point mark for the fourth time this season while playing one of his best games in recent memory. “I thought Marcus had more pop today,” McClain said. “Marcus is one of those guys that works so hard that I had to tell (assistant coach) Seth Cooper and (Marcus) ‘No, you’re not doing extra right now,’ because he was playing tired in the games.” … The Titans did a good job of denying Tai Odiase the ball as the senior center only had two points (a lob dunk) on 1-for-2 shooting, but he did have three blocks and three steals. … After having at least one turnover in each of his first 27 games, Dixson hasn’t turned it over in his last two contests. … For the second straight game, all nine Flames who played hit at least one field goal. … Sophomore guard Godwin Boahen has hit at least one 3-pointer in each of his last 11 games. … The Flames’ 12th conference victory is their most since the 2003-04 season – the last time UIC went to the NCAA tournament.


(Players video courtesy UIC Flames on YouTube)

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