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Flames ride 2nd-half crest

KREPS, BUTTELL, NEELY ENGINEER RALLY

February 26, 2010

Steve Woltmann/UIC Athletics

Jeremy Buttell scored 12 key points in the second half as UIC came back from a 14-point deficit.

UIC is getting used to this little thing called winning.

Robo Kreps, Zavion Neely and Jeremy Buttell combined for 45 points in the second half as the Flames rallied from a 14-point deficit for the second straight game in a 78-71 victory over Green Bay at the Pavilion on Thursday night.

UIC (8-20, 3-14 Horizon League) earned their second straight win after losing 12 of 13 and clinched the No. 9 seed in the conference tournament which begins Tuesday.

“It was a game of character,” UIC coach Jimmy Collins said. “We had talked about sticking together all year through adversities and continuing to fight.”

The Flames appeared to be down for the count when they trailed 40-26 early in the second half, but Neely kick-started a 23-7 spurt with a layup.

“We needed to throw the first punch in the second half,” Buttell said. “As soon as we got going and we reeled off a couple of layups, our momentum just skyrocketed.”

Buttell scored 12 points during the run, including a four-point play with 14:40 remaining that ignited UIC’s energy.

“When J.B. hit that shot, it boosted everyone’s confidence,” Kreps said. “The defense also started picking up after he made that. We got a lot of loose balls there at the end that really propelled us to win it.”

K.C. Robbins hit a 17-foot jumper with 9:30 left to give UIC its first lead of the second half and Neely capped the run with a free throw for a 49-47 advantage with 9:09 to play.

The lead seesawed several times in the next few minutes until Kreps nailed a three-pointer with 4:49 remaining to give the Flames the lead for good at 61-59.

Green Bay (19-11, 10-7) went down fighting, pulling within 67-66 on a three-pointer by Rahmon Fletcher with 1:14 left, but Kreps answered with another three-pointer 16 seconds later.

The junior from Forsyth, Ill. finished off the game scoring the Flames’ final 11 points, including 8-for-8 from the free-throw line to put the dagger into the Phoenix.

Kreps scored 24 points to lead all scorers (18 in the second half) and grabbed a career-high nine rebounds for UIC. Neely scored 18 points (15 in the second half) and Buttell added 16 points (12 after halftime) and 11 rebounds.

Senior point guard Spencer Stewart was held scoreless after a 20-point outing at Evansville, but he proved to be an unsung hero, dishing out seven assists (with just one turnover) and grabbing five rebounds.

UIC shot 50 percent in the second half in overcoming another double-digit deficit.

“It was clearly our worst half of the year,” Green Bay coach Tod Kowalczyk said. “We didn’t guard anybody. I just felt we allowed dribble penetration and that was the story of the second half.”

Neely was the key to shifting the momentum, often squeezing through small gaps, using his speed to beat defenders and taking the ball to the basket for layups. Green Bay tried multiple defenders in an attempt to slow down the Flames’ sophomore, but nothing worked.

“My confidence was through the roof tonight, so I just felt like I can get to the basket no matter who was out there,” Neely said.

Four players finished in double figures for the Phoenix. Fletcher led the way with 17 points. Troy Cotton had 15 points, Bryquis Perine contributed 13 points and Rian Pearson added 12.

Kreps feels the Flames are finally starting to hit their stride with this comeback.

“It shows our maturity,” Kreps said. “We’ve come a long way since the first day of the season.”

BIRTON’S BACK: Forward Brad Birton returned after missing six games with an injured shoulder. He played six minutes off the bench and recorded one rebound and one assist.

“He’s doing OK,” Collins said. “He’s showing in practice that he’s not having ill effects from the shoulder, but he’s still rusty in terms of catching up to what we are doing.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: Robbins, the Flames’ junior center, also had a nice game with nine points and seven rebounds in 25 minutes. … UIC snapped a four-game losing streak to the Phoenix. Green Bay had won seven of the previous eight meetings. … UIC’s first-round opponent in the Horizon League tournament will likely be Valparaiso or Cleveland State, though Green Bay and Milwaukee are also still in the mix.

In other recent news:
Kreps, Stewart guide Flames to road win (at Evansville) (2/21/10)
Bulldogs just too much for Flames (at Butler) (2/18/10)
Very few highlights in another Flames loss (at Loyola) (2/14/10)
Road win evades Flames again (at Valpo) (2/9/10)
Flames exhale, snap 9-game skid (vs. Youngstown St.) (2/7/10)
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)