Milwaukee stops Flames in Motor City Madness again
By Mike Pankow
March 7, 2018
For the second straight year, UIC was upset by lower-seeded Milwaukee after sweeping the Panthers during the regular season, prematurely ending the Flames’ run in the Horizon League tournament with an 80-75 victory Sunday evening at Little Caesars Arena.
The script was even somewhat similar where the Flames allowed the Panthers to control the tempo for a good portion of the second half and UIC had no answers this time for the whirling dervish known as Brock Stull.
“You get into tournament play and you play a team that you’ve beaten twice and you know they’re going to come out and give you their best effort,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “We got their best effort. Two guys that we did a great job on the first two times we played them – Stull and Brett Prahl – had big games for them.”
After limiting Stull in the first two meetings, the Rockford native got untracked, scoring 25 points, including a clutch 3-pointer where he head-faked and got defender Godwin Boahen off his feet with 1:25 left.
“At the end of the day, you have to defend at a high level in tournament play,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “We had taken Brock Stull out of both games. He made some big shots.”
Stull had support from fellow guard Jeremiah Bell with 12 points and dual post threats Prahl (14 points) and Bryce Nze (10 points, nine rebounds) for the Panthers (16-16).
Stull averaged just 9.0 points on 7-for-21 shooting in the regular season against UIC, but he found just enough openings to terrorize the Flames in meeting No. 3. He finished 8-for-15 from the field and 7-for-9 from the free-throw line.
“We know he likes to pump-fake a lot,” said UIC sophomore guard Marcus Ottey, who had 14 points, including two highlight-reel dunks. “A lot of guys, including me, jumped on his pump-fakes and he was making shots.”
Sophomore point guard Tarkus Ferguson had yet another big game against the Panthers, scoring a team-high 23 points to go with seven assists for the Flames (17-15), who’ve lost three straight since winning 12 of 14 and await their postseason fate.
Sophomore forward Dikembe Dixson contributed 13 points and Jordan Blount added 10 points and seven rebounds for UIC.
The Flames were on the verge of extinction before forcing a travel on Bogan High School’s Bryce Barnes, who then in frustration shoved Blount, drawing a technical foul with 2:30 left.
Ferguson hit a pair of free throws to pull UIC within 71-66 and the Flames had a chance to pull even closer, but Blount was called for traveling nine seconds later.
Stull missed a 3-pointer with the shot clock running down, but August Haas secured the long rebound and Milwaukee reset its offense. With the shot clock ticking away again, Stull hit a leaning 3-pointer for a backbreaking eight-point lead at 74-66.
“Coach (Pat Baldwin) did a great job of getting us in positions to make those shots,” Stull said. “We knew (UIC senior center Tai) Odiase would be sitting back, so we just wanted to take advantage of that. Was I in the zone? Sometimes the ball just goes in. Looked good, felt good when I released it.”
After Ottey hit a pair of free throws to pull UIC to within six with 1:12 left, the Flames elected to play defense and not foul. Bell hit a turnaround jumper late in the shot clock to put the Panthers back up 76-68. The Flames would get only as close as five in the final seconds.
Two big keys to game were the Panthers’ defense on Odiase, who had just seven points on 1-for-4 shooting, and Milwaukee’s 25 points off 16 UIC turnovers.
“They were really being physical with Tai and pushing him farther off the block,” McClain said. “He couldn’t get it caught with two feet in the paint, which is where we want him to get it. Prahl did a great job defensively on Tai.”
The pace was frenetic early, which in most cases would favor the Flames, but the Panthers jumped out to an 8-2 lead, but the Flames countered with a quick 11-0 run to grab a 13-8 advantage with Blount scoring eight of those points.
Dixson stopped the run with a 3-pointer as the Flames closed the first half with a flourish. Freshman Michael Diggins knocked down a pair of free throws with 30 seconds left before halftime as UIC went in the locker room tied at 37-37. Dixson and Ottey combined for 13 of the Flames’ last 17 points of the first half.
UIC started the second half strong, holding Milwaukee to just two field goals in the first 7:30 while outscoring them 14-7 to take its largest lead of the game. Clint Robinson and Ottey scored consecutive close-in baskets as the Flames opened a 51-44 lead with 12:32 left.
“In the second half I thought they were going to try to shorten the game,” McClain said. “We had enough plays there when we had the lead and we were getting stops, yet we just couldn’t get it to eight or 10.”
After Stull hit back-to-back jumpers to close the score to 51-50, Boahen hit a 3-pointer and added a free throw to put UIC back up five.
The game then turned for the Flames. During an 11-0 run, Prahl scored on a layup and Blount was called for a flagrant foul with 6:57 remaining. Suddenly, UIC trailed 61-55.
Dixson knocked down a 3-pointer from the corner to close the gap to 63-62, but Barnes hit a 15-foot jumper and Stull scored six straight points as Milwaukee extended the lead to 71-62 with 2:50 left.
“It was a very good battle from our guys and a very good UIC team who really had our number a little bit,” Milwaukee coach Pat Baldwin said. “Give our guys a lot of credit. In the second half, we had guys step and hit some difficult shots with hands in their faces.”
With the loss, the Flames will miss the NCAA tournament for the 14th consecutive season, but McClain believes his much-improved squad deserves the opportunity to continue playing in a postseason tournament like the College Basketball Invitational. Last season, UIC advanced to the semifinals of the 16-team CBI before falling at Coastal Carolina.
“When I look at this team and where we’re at compared to a year ago, what we’ve accomplished with the conference wins, the road wins, I don’t think there’s any question we’ll get an opportunity,” McClain said. “When you have a young team, giving them every opportunity for them to keep playing is such an important thing.”
Ferguson said the Flames would be on a mission if they get selected for postseason play.
“If we go, our main focus is winning,” he said.
FLAMES FLICKERS: Milwaukee now leads the all-time postseason series 5-3, but the Flames still own the most important victory – a 65-62 win in the championship game of the 2004 Horizon League tournament at UWM Panther Arena (then known as U.S. Cellular Arena). … Dixson (5), Ferguson (4) and Blount (4) combined for 13 of UIC’s 16 turnovers. Milwaukee committed just eight total. … Both teams shot at least 80 percent from the foul line: UIC was 20-for-24 and Milwaukee 20-for-25. … Boahen hit a 3-pointer in his 14th straight contest. … The Flames’ Dominique Matthews saw his streak of consecutive games with a 3-pointer end at nine as he missed his only attempt in only four minutes of action. … UIC won the two regular-season matchups by an average of 16.5 points per game. … Ferguson loves playing against Milwaukee as his averages are 16.3 points, 5.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game in six career matchups against the Panthers.