Whoosh! Net News

Flames’ comeback falls just short


November 24, 2009

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Osiris Eldridge scored 19 points to lead Illinois State, but he did not tally in the final 18:54 of the game.

The UIC Flames didn’t care about the experts’ expectations, and that shined through on Monday night at the Pavilion.

Visiting Illinois State was picked to finish near the top of the Missouri Valley while the Flames were picked to finish near the bottom of the Horizon League.

But as sportscasters sometimes say, “That’s why they play the games.”

The Flames made a spirited effort in trying to make it back from a 10-point, second-half deficit, but the more experienced Redbirds held on for a 69-65 victory.

“I think Illinois State has a really good ballclub,” UIC coach Jimmy Collins said. “I feel really good about the fight and effort that we put forth. If we put that type of fight and effort into every game, then good things will start to happen. Personally, I don’t put a lot of stock into rankings, but if your team plays hard and fights and plays smart, then I think they’ll be pretty good.”

Osiris Eldridge scored 19 points, 17 of which came in the first half, to lead Illinois State (3-0). Lloyd Phillips added 15 points and Dinma Odiakosa contributed 13 points and eight rebounds.

Zavion Neely led the Flames (1-2) with 17 points and three assists. Robo Kreps and Jeremy Buttell added 15 points apiece.

Kreps had a clean look at a game-tying three-point attempt with 10 seconds left, but the ball rimmed in and out and the Redbirds tracked down the long rebound to effectively end the game.

“Coach [Collins] has a play where I run on the baseline and try to juke my man out,” Kreps said. “We hadn’t run it the whole game, so we kind of caught them off guard with it. I had a pretty good look, but it seemed like almost every other shot I’ve taken this year, it goes in and out.”

Kreps shot 6-for-16 for the game, but just 1-for-9 from three-point range.

The Flames never conceded the contest even when ISU took a 49-39 lead on Austin Hill’s two free throws with 10:50 left.

That’s when Collins went with a shorter lineup, bringing in senior guard Chris Buchanan, who hadn’t played the entire game. Collins also unleashed Neely, who consistently beat the Redbirds to the basket with a slashing drives.

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Sophomore Zavion Neely led the Flames in scoring for the second time this season.

“I just had confidence,” Neely said. “I knew had somebody had to step up. I was just trying to keep the game close and do what I had to do to get the win.”

After a trio of Neely baskets that helped keep the Flames close, Buchanan scored five quick points, including a three-pointer that drew UIC within 56-53 with 6:50 left.

“There was like an 8-10-minute stretch where we didn’t feel like we could stop them,” ISU coach Tim Jankovich said. “They just kept whittling the lead down. Neely got into a little rhythm. He thought he was at the park and he looked like it. We definitely did not have an answer for him for a good while. He kept them in the game single-handedly.”

ISU appeared to regain control with it stretched the lead back to eight points at 67-59 when Tony Lewis made two free throws with 2:26 to play.

However, Buttell energized the Flames with a four-point play 13 seconds later to close the gap in half. On the ensuing ISU possession, UIC’s Brad Birton poked the ball away from Phillips, leading to Neely’s 18-foot jumper to pulled UIC within 67-65 with 1:42 remaining.

The Flames had two chances to tie the game with just under a minute to play, but Neely and Birton missed shots. After Odiakosa split a pair of free throws, Collins called his final timeout to set up a game-tying three-point attempt.

UIC ran down the clock and got the ball to Kreps, whose shot barely missed. Phillips tracked down the long rebound near the sideline and was fouled. Phillips split a pair of free throws with 5.6 seconds left to close the scoring.

“We had some opportunities,” Collins said. “The Redbirds kind of shut some of those down, and we didn’t use what they gave us at the right time. We’ll make those adjustments. We’ll get better as the team matures. Hopefully, the next time in a game like this, we’ll come out a little bit better.”

UIC started fast and grabbed a 17-8 lead after Buttell scored seven straight points that cap a 9-0 spurt.

After a timeout, Eldridge took over and converted a three-point play that started a Redbirds run.

Eldridge hit back-to-back three-pointers to complete a 16-4 run that gave ISU its first lead of the game at 24-21. The Chicago native closed the first half with a 17-foot jumper to boost the Redbirds’ lead to 34-28.

“In the first half, we really didn’t find [Eldridge],” Kreps said. “For whatever reason, we didn’t find him in transition and he was getting wide-open threes. In the second half, we made it a point to get on him and have someone else beat us.”

Eldridge scored just one basket after halftime and none in the final 18:54, but the Redbirds found just enough ways to survive.

“This gave us some experience for us in tight games, how to grind it out in the end,” Eldridge said. “I think we did a good job of grinding out.”

Despite the loss, Collins hopes that the Flames can build from their performance.

“I was very happy with the effort,” Collins said. “It’s extremely important to get better as you go whether you win or lose. I thought we made some strides in terms of getting better, but the effort was certainly there.”

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Spencer Stewart (right), with Matt Bush, watches shoot-around from the Flames’ bench before the game.

STEWART CLEARED TO PRACTICE: Senior Spencer Stewart is one step closer to returning to the Flames.

The point guard was cleared to practice starting this week, but he is still suspended from game action until further notice. He was on the bench before the game, watching the pre-game shoot-around with teammates.

As part of the suspension, Stewart previously had to clean out his locker at the Flames Athletics Center and stay away from team-related activities. The suspension is due to “a violation of team rules.” Talk is Stewart will begin playing “soon.”

FLAMES FLICKERS:One could have been fooled into thinking the game was being played at Redbird Arena since at least 60 percent of the crowd was ISU fans. …

ISU has won four straight meetings and leads the all-time series 13-7. Collins dropped to 5-6 in his career against the Redbirds. …

Birton had eight rebounds and two steals, but shot just 1-for-9 from the field in 33 minutes. …

With 4:58 left in the game, officials missed an obvious offensive basket interference call when they allowed ISU’s Kellen Thornton tip-in of an Eldridge shot that was still on the cylinder. …

Among the former Flames athletes in the crowd were Curtis Granderson, Joe Scott, Karl White, Tori Boyd and Jimmy Sexton.

In other recent news:
Bitter cold night in Mt. Pleasant (at C. Michigan) (11/19/09)
Neely seizes opportunity as Flames win opener (vs. UIS) (11/15/09)
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)