A big helping hand
Ferguson’s 12 assists help UIC advance to CBI semis
By Mike Pankow
March 21, 2017
The freshman from Belleville Althoff was running on all cylinders as the Flames kept their season going with an 80-71 victory over George Washington in the College Basketball Invitational quarterfinals at the UIC Pavilion on Monday night.
The Flames (17-18) will play at Coastal Carolina (18-17) on Wednesday night in the semifinals for the right to play in the Best-of-3 CBI Championship Series next week.
Ferguson has been on a roll as a distributor, handing out a career-high 12 assists on a variety of feeds into the post or to perimeter shooters. One of his primary beneficiaries, junior center Tai Odiase, scored 23 points on 8-for-14 shooting to go with seven rebounds and four blocked shots.
“My favorite thing is getting an assist for sure,” Ferguson said. “I look out for my teammates, get them in the right spots. I like to lob it in for Tai. That gets our team going.”
UIC did plenty of sharing on this night, racking up a season-high 24 assists while five players scored in double figures.
Redshirt freshman guard Dominique Matthews scored 15 points, true freshman guard Godwin Boahen contributed 11 points and eight assists, freshman forward K.J. Santos had 11 points and six rebounds and freshman guard Marcus Ottey added 10 points. Ferguson also grabbed a team-high 10 rebounds, registering his seventh double-double of the season.
“What that tells me is that we’ve become a better team in postseason play,” said UIC coach Steve McClain about the team’s balance. “It’s been about everybody (contributing).”
Tyler Cavanaugh scored 24 points despite battling severe foul trouble in the second half for the Colonials (20-15) while Yuta Watanabe added 21 points.
The Flames came out with a spirited energy, taking a quick 7-0 lead in the first minute and five seconds. Odiase scored two inside baskets in that span, quickly erasing thoughts of a rough two-game stretch for the veteran.
“Before Stony Brook (on Thursday), I had a fever, I was kind of sick,” Odiase said. “I had a little less energy that day. Tonight, I was feeling better and playing well.”
When things looked like they were headed south after the Colonials took a 20-17 lead on Arnaldo Toros' 3-pointer, but UIC answered the bell with a Ferguson 3-pointer and run of 18 straight points.
Three different Flames hit treys during that blitz (Santos and Matthews also connected from downtown) and Odiase scored five points, including an old-fashioned three-point play. By the time the smoke cleared, the Flames led 38-22.
Ferguson had two 3-pointers and three assists during the 18-0 spurt.
Odiase said he’s enjoying playing with a creative player like Ferguson.
“It’s great,” Odiase said. “My first two years here, we didn’t have a true point guard.”
UIC settled for a 42-32 lead at the half when Tyler Cavanaugh drilled a triple in the final seconds.
Ferguson was huge during a second-half run, doling out all five of his assists after halftime during a 17-6 spurt. Matthews scored five points during the run and Ottey capped it with a layup off a steal for a 62-45 lead with 8:19 left.
“[Ferguson] is starting to see the court at a high level,” McClain said. “You can draw up all the plays, but you’ve to finish them. Guys finished them tonight.”
George Washington wasn't finished, going on a 20-5 run, boosted by 12 points from Cavanaugh. The senior forward converted a three-point play with 1:48 left to cut the Flames' lead to 69-67.
“We always find a way to make it interesting,” McClain said. “I don’t panic, we don’t panic. I just like their mindset right now.”
With UIC ahead 70-67 and the clock dripping down toward 1 minute remaining, Boahen stuck the biggest shot of his career, draining a 3-pointer to put the Flames back up six. The Colonials never got closer than five after that.
The Flames are enjoying their newfound life in the postseason and are gaining valuable experience for the future after defeating the 2016 NIT champions.
“They’ve bought into it completely,” McClain said. “This is a new experience for them. They were locked in and ready to play.”
Now, the Flames, the youngest team in the nation, are just three wins from a CBI championship.
“More than half of our team are underclassmen,” Ferguson said. “To be doing this with such a young team, it can tell only positive things about our future.”
FLAMES FLICKERS: Ferguson's 12 assists matched the CBI single-game record. ... Odiase’s 23 points were just one shy of the career-best 24 he scored against Northern Arizona on Dec. 20. … The Flames improved to 3-5 all-time in national postseason play, including 2-0 under McClain and 3-0 at the Pavilion. ... UIC won on the hustle scoreboard, outrebounding George Washington 45-31, including 15-10 on the offensive end. ... The Flames' previous season high in assists was 23 against Roosevelt on Dec. 22. ... Santos appeared to tweak his ankle below the basket with 25.3 seconds left in the game. He was helped off the court, but he walked under his own power in the postgame handshake line. With the quick turnaround, the severity of the injury is unknown and it is unknown whether he will be ready for Wednesday.