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Neely seizes opportunity as Flames win opener

SOPHOMORE GETS HELP FROM KREPS, ROBBINS

November 15, 2009

Whoosh! photo

Sophomore guard Zavion Neely scored a career-best 19 points for the Flames.

With a major overhaul in the roster during the offseason, UIC became the land of opportunity.

Rising up to the seize the moment was sophomore guard Zavion Neely, who played his best game as a Flame, scoring a career-high 19 points on 7-for-13 from the field, as UIC defeated Illinois-Springfield 72-59 in its season opener at the Pavilion on Saturday.

The speedy 6-foot-1-inch, 175-pound Neely demonstrated his ability to score off penetration and also mixed in some jump shots, including a three-pointer.

With junior Robo Kreps returning as the Flames’ go-to player, it also gave Neely some openings on offense.

“Coach [Jimmy Collins] always talks about opportunity and making the best of what other teams give you,” Neely said. “Coming into the season, I know people are keying on Robo, so we’re going to need that other person to step up. I just took it upon myself to do what I could to help him out.”

Neely hit a couple of layups on drives to the basket in the first half, then started to expand his range with mid-range and perimeter jumpers.

“Practice makes perfect,” said Neely, who entered with UIC with the reputation of having a below-average jump shot. “That will help free up other things [for us].”

Kreps also excelled with Neely on the floor. While the Forsyth, Ill. product didn’t have a great shooting day, he did quite possibly play his best all-around game as a Flame, tallying 16 points, seven rebounds, and six assists with just two turnovers to go along with two steals.

“We know a lot of attention is going to be given to Robo [and his offense],” Collins said. “And Robo has to do other things. I keep emphasizing to him if your jumper is not hitting, drive; If your drive isn’t working, play stronger defense; If your defense looks like it’s off, rebound a little more. I think he accomplished all of those things.”

Whoosh! photo

Robo Kreps had 16 points, seven rebounds and six assists for UIC.

Kreps shot just 6-for-15 from the field, including 2-for-8 from three-point range.

“I was missing my three-balls, so I tried to do other things,” Kreps said. “I was trying to get into the lane and create for other guys.”

Another bright spot was the tough inside play of junior K.C. Robbins, who made up for his lackluster exhibition game against Lewis.

The 6-foot-11, 270-pound Robbins exercised his dominance on a smaller UIS team and nearly racked up a double-double in the first half as UIC took a 33-19 lead into the break. Robbins finished with a double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds in 26 minutes off the bench.

“I just knew that I came out rocky in the exhibition game, and I wanted to prove to myself and to my team that I can be a better player than that,” Robbins said. “I just tried to establish my size down and establish the inside-outside game with our guards.”

Robbins sparked the Flames early, helping to contribute to all nine points in a quick 9-4 spurt that gave UIC a 16-11 lead with three putbacks and an assist on a Chris Buchanan three-point basket.

UIC closed the first half on 17-5 run, which included six points apiece from Neely and Kreps, for a 33-19 lead at intermission.

“Robo and Z complement each other so well,” Collins said. “They are roomies and they talk, they help each other get better. That’s what we want on this team; we want a close-knit group that shares information with each other.”

UIS made a little noise early in the second half, as Richard Oruche scored all nine points in a 9-1 run that brought the Prairie Stars back within 38-28 with 15:56 left.

However, the Flames responded again behind the combo of Neely and Kreps, reeling off an 11-3 spurt to boost the advantage to 19 with 11:56 remaining.

The lead was pushed to as much as 22 on Buchanan’s three-pointer with 6:23 left as the Flames cruised down the home stretch.

UIC was missing a few regulars, including Jeremy Buttell and Kris Harris to a one-game suspension, so Collins was scrambling for a lineup.

“We’ve got a young team and we were kind of thrown together like a makeshift [unit],” Collins said. “But the guys that played responded in a positive way.

“I was extremely pleased with the way they hustled, the way they moved their feet and communicated on defense,” he added. “I think if we build on that and continue to play like an unselfish team, we’ve got some possibilities.”

After a humbling 65-55 loss to Lewis in Tuesday’s exhibition, the Flames had a chip on their shoulders.

“To play like we did against Lewis kind of hurt us,” Kreps said. “We wanted to come out and prove something, and I thought we did that. We played extremely hard, which was really good to see.”

SHAKING UP STARTERS: Since Buttell and Harris were suspended for Saturday’s game, Collins started freshman Anthony Kelley at small forward and Neely at shooting guard along with Kreps at the point and junior Brad Birton at power forward. Freshman Louis Green started at center after his strong exhibition game against Lewis.

Collins gave a bit of a warning to Buttell and Harris, who were starters in the exhibition game and will be back for Wednesday night’s game at Central Michigan.

“They better come back with a vengeance,” Collins said. “… because we played pretty doggone well without them.”

Buttell and Harris were disciplined for violating a team rule. They also sat out the public scrimmage at the Season Tip-Off Breakfast back on Oct. 17 for the same violation.

FLAMES FLICKERS: The Flames dressed only 11 of the 21 players on their roster. All 11 active players saw game action. …

UIC recently added another walk-on as 6-foot-4-guard Arman Rasul from Rich South High School joined the team. Also, junior guard Dipanjot Singh is now wearing jersey No. 21. …

UIC held UIS to just 17.9 percent shooting in the first half (5-for-28), narrowly missing the Pavilion-record for the worst-shooting half. North Park shot 17.0 percent in a half on Nov. 23, 1991. …

One of the biggest cheers from the bench came when freshman guard Corey Gray drew a charging foul on Oruche with 7:08 left in the first half. …

UIS had two former Division I players on its roster—Oruche, a guard who played at Northern Illinois and Ryan Thornton, who played one season at Milwaukee. …

UIS is in its first year as a NCAA Division II school. It made the jump from NAIA to the Great Lakes Valley Conference to join the likes of Lewis, Southern Indiana and Bellarmine. The coach is former Boston Celtics player Kevin Gamble. …

A quick rundown of the other players not active: Senior guard Spencer Stewart remains indefinitely suspended. Sophomore forward Jelani Poston is academically ineligible but should return soon. Sophomore guard Austin Hood is still suffering from the flu. Junior forward Mylin Northern and sophomore forward Ryan Sligh are sitting out a year in residence (due to NCAA transfer rules) in order to get eligible. Junior guard Matt Bush is taking a redshirt season to recover from an injured knee. Rasul and freshman guard Erin Pryor did not dress.

UIC has received letters of intent from 6-foot-2 guard Kenny Stevenson of Seton Academy and 6-foot-7 forward Eddie Denard of Foreman High School.

Collins will join Loyola coach Jim Whitesell and DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright on WGN-AM 720’s Sports Central on Monday night from 7-8 p.m.

In other recent news:
It's not easy being green (Exhibition vs. Lewis) (11/11/09)
Flames tabbed ninth in preseason (plus HL/Whoosh! vote) (11/9/09)
Collins turns to Robbins in the post (plus departures, schedule) (10/6/09)
SUMMER UPDATE: Marquee names on non-conference schedule (7/8/09)