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Flames crying out for some stability

OFFENSE STRUGGLES AGAIN, BUT STEWART RETURNING

December 4, 2009

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Robo Kreps shot just 4-for-17 against Milwaukee on Thursday and said the return of Spencer Stewart will be a welcome sight.

MILWAUKEE—UIC’s offensive woes continued on a wintry night where it seemed the cold breeze entered U.S. Cellular Arena and snuffed out the flickering Flames.

A stat sheet featuring four assists, 13 turnovers, 35 percent shooting and zero three-point baskets was a cry for help.

Thankfully for the Flames, the one bit of good news Thursday could offer some assistance despite a 57-52 loss to rival Milwaukee in the teams’ Horizon League opener.

UIC announced senior point guard Spencer Stewart was reinstated to the team and will return to game action on Saturday night against Green Bay.

And not a moment too soon for Flames coach Jimmy Collins.

“At this point, anything would make me happy,” Collins said. “Spencer has to get into some kind of game shape. He certainly is a welcome addition. Hopefully, Spencer can get us more stable out there, because right now we’re playing like keystone cops … we’re just running and not getting anything done.”

Junior stalwart Robo Kreps had a rough night, shooting just 4-for-17 from the field, including all five of his three-point attempts and scoring a season-low nine points. He even missed a wide-open layup in the second half after the Flames broke free from a Milwaukee press.

“If I made them all, I’d be Michael Jordan or J.J. Redick, but you know what, we’re all human,” Kreps said. “I thought I shot good last game, but that didn’t matter in this game. I missed open shots … that’s going to happen.”

Kreps believes Stewart’s return will be a blessing for UIC.

“No doubt, it’s going to help us,” Kreps said. “We need something to get us going. We’ve lost too many close games and maybe he can help us down the stretch.”

Stewart was suspended on Sept. 25 for a violation of team rules. He was allowed to return to practice last week.

Despite all of the Flames’ offensive difficulties, they still had several opportunities to tie the game in the game’s last 1:30.

With UIC down 53-50, Brad Birton missed a three-pointer with 1:19 remaining. After the Flames crawled within two in the final minute, they could not take advantage of two late Panthers’ turnovers as Chris Buchanan and Kris Harris both missed close-in shots that would have tied the game.

The Panthers made three of four free throws down the stretch for the final margin.

“I thought we competed for awhile, but the Panthers were just tougher than us,” Collins said. “I hate to keep coming to the podium and saying we got out-toughed. … We missed countless layups. We had great shots … we missed layups, we missed wide open Js, we missed putbacks.”

Tony Meier and Ricky Franklin led Milwaukee (6-2, 1-0 Horizon) with 14 points apiece and Deonte Roberts added six points and team-highs of eight rebounds and four assists. The Panthers won despite shooting just 29 percent from the field.

“We’ll take the win,” Milwaukee coach Rob Jeter said. “We understand that we can play a little bit better and we just have to prove that. … We had some turnovers there. We were a little careless with the ball in the final minute. If it weren’t for that, we could have breathed a little easier.”

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Senior Kris Harris had a career-best 15 points for the Flames.

Harris scored a career-high 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting to lead UIC (1-4, 0-1).

With memories of last season’s meltdown in Milwaukee still fresh in the fans’ minds, Harris was bombarded with taunts when he initially entered the game midway through the first half.

Harris played one of his better games as a Flame on Jan. 31, until he missed six free throws in the final minute to help open the door for an improbable Panthers’ victory.

Harris said he was unfazed by the fans’ chants, simply stating: “I just wanted to play hard and help the team win.”

Birton contributed 10 points and nine rebounds and Jeremy Buttell added a season-high 13 rebounds for the Flames.

Zavion Neely, UIC’s leading scorer at 16.0 points per game coming into Thursday, had just six points on 2-for-11 from the field and 2-for-4 from the free-throw line.

UIC trailed 18-8 with 9:07 left in the first half after the Panthers went on an 11-0 run. The Flames closed the half with an 11-2 spurt, which included Harris scoring two baskets and assisting on a Birton jumper, for a 25-22 lead at the break.

The Flames led by as many as five points in the second half, but Milwaukee established a little bit of control with a nine-point lead at 53-44 on a Meier's layup with 4:25 remaining.

However, UIC crawled back into the contest to set up the frenetic final minutes as Buchanan's follow shot closed the deficit to three points with 2:58 to go.

Collins pointed out a few more flaws that need some fixing in upcoming games.

“Anytime you give up 16 offensive rebounds and anytime you can hold a team to 29 percent and still lose, it’s because loose balls are being gathered, guys not blocking out,” Collins said. “In my old-fashioned mind, that means a lack of toughness. Until we do that, we’re going to come to podium many, many times with long faces.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: Milwaukee’s James Eayrs, the reigning Horizon League player of the week had a horrible night, shooting 2-for-14 from the field and 0-for-7 from three-point range. The senior forward finished with just seven points. … UIC’s two true centers played just a combined 19 minutes: Senior K.C. Robbins had two points and five rebounds in 18 minutes while freshman Louis Green made a cameo appearance in the first half. … The Flames’ latest walk-on, Arman Rasul, dressed for the first time this season as guard Arthur Wiley has an ankle injury. … Something definitive on the status of sophomore forward Jelani Poston should be coming within the next couple of weeks with fall semester finals approaching.

UP NEXT: UIC travels to Green Bay to play the Phoenix at the Resch Center on Saturday night at 7 p.m.

The Phoenix is 7-2 overall and 1-0 in the Horizon League after whipping Loyola 90-69 on Thursday night. Rahmon Fletcher, who had a career-high 29 points against the Ramblers, leads Green Bay at 16.4 points per game. The Phoenix shoot 46 percent from three-point range and average 73 points per contest.

The game can be seen on HLN at horizonleaguenetwork.tv live and can be heard on WMVP-AM 1000 on a tape delay at 10 p.m. following the Bulls.

In other recent news:
Salukis’ 2nd-half spurt douses Flames (at SIU) (11/29/09)
Flames’ comeback falls just short (vs. Illinois St., plus Stewart update) (11/24/09)
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)