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So close

Flames’ furious rally falls short in CIT final

By Mike Pankow

April 3, 2018

Horizon League file photo

Marcus Ottey scored 21 of his 25 points in the second half against Northern Colorado in the CIT championship game.

UIC was on the verge of history Friday night.

After falling behind by 16 points in the second half, the Flames came up just short of winning their first national postseason championship in a 76-71 loss at Northern Colorado in the CollegeInsider.com tournament finals at the Bank of Colorado Arena in Greeley, Colo.

It was the third straight road game in this tournament for the Flames (20-16), who had defeated Austin Peay and Liberty before their nine-game road winning streak was snapped in this one.

UIC coach Steve McClain simply said, bring it on.

“I said ‘great,’ McClain told reporters. “We’ve gone on the road and played in front of huge crowds and won in Oakland and we’ve been on television in front of big crowds before.”

Jordan Davis scored 29 points and CIT MVP Andre Spight added 23 points for the Bears (26-12).

The Flames took everything that UNC and a sold-out crowd of over 3,000 fans threw at them.

Just when it appeared the Bears were ready to run away and hide with the trophy, taking a 65-49 lead with 7:33 left, UIC stoked itself back into the game.

Sophomore guard Marcus Ottey scored 21 of his team-high 25 points in the second half and along with point guard Tarkus Ferguson (13 points, 10 rebounds) helped lead the Flames back into the game.

“We never thought that we had to stop a certain guy. Their scorers were going to score,” Davis said of UIC. “Their aggressors are like junkyard dogs, and they were going to play to their strengths.”

Ferguson was grabbed around the waist by UNC’s Jonah Radebaugh while going up for a layup and took a swipe at Radebaugh thinking he was fouled intentionally. Radebaugh ended up being called for a common foul and technical on the play, leading to Ferguson hitting three of four free throws.

Ferguson scored nine points and Ottey added seven during a 22-6 blitz that helped the Flames pull to within one.

Ferguson assisted on back-to-back 3-pointers by Ottey and Michael Diggins to cut UIC’s deficit to 71-68 with 2:52 remaining.

After a steal by Godwin Boahen, Ottey sliced through the lane for a layup to make it 71-70 with 2:06.

On UNC’s next possession, the Bears were able to answer as a lob to Davis nearly went awry, but the nimble guard made the catch and managed to lay it in for a three-point lead with 1:48 to go.

“They went to a 1-3-1 zone and they're a very good defensive team,” UNC coach Jeff Linder said. “They have a lot of length and athleticism. We talk to our guys about response and how would they respond when they cut that lead down.”

With the Flames down 73-70, Ottey airballed a 3-point attempt and Ferguson missed a layup in traffic on consecutive possessions.

After the ball went out of bounds, UIC tried to press UNC, but the Bears threw a “home run” pass down court to Jalen Sanders, who slammed home a dunk for a five-point lead with 46 seconds left.

Ferguson and Boahen then missed 3-pointers and the Flames would get no closer. As time ran out on UIC, the Bears celebrated with their fans, who rushed the court at the final buzzer.

“We did all we could do to have an opportunity to win in the end,” McClain said. “We just didn't make shots.”

The Flames controlled the game early, taking a 24-21 lead on senior center Tai Odiase’s jumper with 5:31 left in the first half.

They limited Spight, who scored 40 points against Sam Houston State in the semifinals, by putting a multitude of defenders on him, including the speedy Ottey and the wiry Diggins. Spight forced plenty of wild shots en route to finishing 7-for-22 from the field, helping UIC stay within striking distance for a while.

UIC then went cold from the field, missing 10 straight shots, as the Bears went on a half-closing 14-2 run to take a 35-26 lead at the break.

UNC pushed its lead to 40-26 on Davis’ layup 34 seconds into the second half, but the Flames fought back to within six on Ottey’s layup with 16:08 left.

The Bears quickly pushed the lead back into double figures before the Flames made their furious comeback late.

In the end, the Flames improved by three games from last season while winning 20 games for the first time in 14 years. They pulled out three postseason victories for the first time in program history while setting a school record with nine straight road wins – all after starting the season 5-10 – and perhaps setting the stage for bigger and better things in the 2018-19 season.

FLAMES FLICKERS: Odiase and backup center Clint Robinson played their final games as Flames. Odiase finished with five points and three blocks in 26 minutes while Robinson had two points and three rebounds in 14 minutes off the bench. … Ottey, Ferguson and Odiase were named to the CIT all-tournament team. … Ferguson shot just 1-for-11 from the field, but he was 11-for-12 from the free-throw line to help the Flames rally. … McClain is 5-2 in national postseason after going 3-1 in this season’s CIT after a 2-1 mark in the 2017 College Basketball Invitational (CBI). … The Flames lost their first true road game since an 86-51 defeat at Northern Kentucky on Dec. 30. … Boahen hit at least one 3-pointer in his last 18 games. … Sophomore forward Jordan Blount had nine points and eight rebounds, but he also committed seven of the Flames’ 17 turnovers. … Blount and Ottey each had three steals. … Despite shooting 46.9 percent in the second half, UIC finished at 35.9 percent overall.

In other recent news:
CIT: UIC 67, Liberty 51: One step away (3/29/18)
CIT: UIC 83, Austin Peay 81: Boahen silent but deadly (3/22/18)
CIT: UIC 84, Saint Francis (Pa.) 61: Sharing the wealth (3/16/18)
Dixson makes it official: Off to the pros (3/16/18)
Season extended: Flames invited to CIT (3/13/18)
HORIZON TOURNEY: Milwaukee 80, UIC 75: Bitter taste (3/7/18)
HORIZON AWARDS: Odiase, Boahen honored (3/2/18)
Wright State 88, UIC 81: Learning experience (2/28/18)
Northern Kentucky 79, UIC 72: Double whammy (2/24/18)
UIC 94, Detroit Mercy 87: Rising up (2/21/18)
UIC 83, Green Bay 75: True road warriors (2/18/18)