Underdog ends Flames’ run
Milwaukee confounds UIC with crisp execution
By Mike Pankow
March 7, 2017
For UIC, the Horizon League tournament suddenly got maddening as the ultimate underdog claimed another victim. Tenth-seeded Milwaukee continued its miracle run with a 74-68 victory over the Flames on Monday night in the semifinals at Joe Louis Arena.
The Panthers (11-23) used a balanced, patient offense and a confounding zone defense to get revenge on the Flames, who swept them in the regular season. Milwaukee will face No. 4 seed Northern Kentucky in Tuesday night's championship game.
The sixth-seeded Flames (15-18) came into this matchup as slight favorites, a role that had been undesirable as five of the six underdogs over the first three days of this tournament had won.
The Panthers, who didn't win in February and entered the tourney on a nine-game losing streak, knocked off No. 7 seed Cleveland State in a mild surprise and then shocked No. 2 seed Valparaiso, who had lost Horizon League Player of the Year Alec Peters to injury.
Sophomore guard Brock Stull had 17 points and 10 rebounds, Brett Prahl and Cody Wichmann each scored 15 points and Jeremy Johnson added 10 points for Milwaukee, who at times looked like it was performing a layup drill against the Flames defense.
“They’re playing really well,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “I knew we were going to be in for a fight. They did what nobody did to us all year. The played zone and slowed the game down.”
Redshirt freshman Dominique Matthews, who had a strong run in the tournament, scored a game-high 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting to lead the Flames. Clint Robinson and Godwin Boahen added 11 points apiece for UIC.
UIC trailed for most of the game and were behind 58-49 with just under 7 minutes to play, but the young Flames responded.
Robinson, who played most of the post minutes down the stretch, hit a layup to start a late run. Matthews converted an old-fashioned three-point play and Boahen knocked down a 3 to pull the Flames to within 60-57.
Matthews capped the 14-5 run with a layup to tie the game at 63-63 with 2:26 left.
“We weren’t used to them staying in the zone like that,” Matthews said. “The second half we attacked the basket. We still played hard, but we didn’t come out with the win.”
The Flames thought they had the Panthers stopped on the next possession with a quick double of Prahl in the post. But the Milwaukee big man found freshman point guard August Haas, who drilled a 3-pointer from the elbow with 1:56 left for a 66-63 lead.
“August made a good pass to me, I didn’t have my balance,” Prahl said. “But I saw he was wide open, so I passed it right back to him and he hit the shot.”
Haas, a 31-percent 3-point shooter, simply stepped up.
“Godwin [Boahen] went with the big and he shouldn’t have,” McClain said. “The odds say if Haas shoots that 3, (he misses). That’s the kind of a roll Milwaukee is on right now.”
UIC tried a lob pass inside to Robinson the ensuing time down the floor, but Robinson fumbled it away leading to a transition layup by Stull for a five-point lead with 1:36 left.
Matthews missed a mid-range jumper after a slight bump on the ensuing possession and Milwaukee secured the rebound and hit four of six rebounds to write the final chapter on the Flames’ season and continue its own storybook run.
“Their ability to execute on this stage is phenomenal right now,” Milwaukee coach LaVall Jordan said. “We had so many guys step up and make plays. We had faith.”
After the Flames opened an early 8-4 lead, Brock Stull led an 11-0 charge with a pair of 3-pointers to give the Panthers a 15-8 lead.
UIC had to chase for the rest of the first half, finally tying the game at 30-30 on Michael Kolawole's mid-range jumper with 1:08 before half.
The Panthers scored the final four points of the period and took a 34-30 halftime edge on freshman Bryce Barnes' layup with 9 seconds left.
Milwaukee maintained a lead between four and nine points for the bulk of the second half, often frustrating UIC with pinpoint execution, often leading to layups. The Panthers shot 48.3 percent for the game.
Freshman Bryce Barnes, from Bogan High School, even knocked down a 3-pointer to out the Panthers ahead 58-49 before the Flames made their late charge.
“When we got down nine, we fought back and tied the game,” McClain said. “They made a play (late) and we didn’t. I give them credit. They deserve to be playing [Tuesday].”
It was quite the season of improvement for UIC in McClain’s second year as Flames coach, finishing with 10 more victories than last season’s 5-25 campaign. UIC did this despite a spate of nagging injuries during the season, including losing top player Dikembe Dixson to a torn ACL in the season’s 10th game.
“We made a lot of growth,” McClain said. “We’re the second youngest team in the country and we were one of the most improved teams in the country. My goal when I came here 18 months ago was to make UIC basketball relevant again. I think we made a big stride in Year 2. We dealt with the injuries and we didn’t use it as an excuse. I’m pride of the kids.”
FLAMES FLICKERS: The Flames had a pair of highlight-reel plays in the first half: Boahen had a circus basket after being bumped on a drive to the hoop with 9:50 left and Ottey threw down an alley-oop dunk off a pass from Boahen with 7:40 remaining. … Junior center Tai Odiase was visibly frustrated by Milwaukee, scoring just two points on 1-for-5 shooting and blocking just two shots in 20 minutes. … The Flames had just 12 turnovers for the second consecutive tournament game. … This was the ninth Horizon League semifinal appearance for the Flames, but just the second since 2008. UIC fell to 3-6. ... The Flames and Panthers had previously met in six conference tournament games and split them with the most notable coming in 2004 when UIC beat Milwaukee 65-62 in the championship game in the building now known as UWM Panther Arena.