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The kid that got away

One-time UIC target Strus leads DePaul

By Mike Pankow

December 12, 2017

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

DePaul guard Max Strus scored a career-high 24 points Saturday afternoon against UIC.

Max Strus was the one that got away from UIC.

Once pursued by the Flames, Strus scored a career-high 24 points to lead DePaul to a 65-55 victory Saturday afternoon over UIC at the Pavilion.

When Strus declared his intent to transfer from Division II Lewis in the spring of 2016, UIC was at the front of the line for his services, but so was DePaul.

Strus said he picked DePaul because of “the overall family environment.”

“I fit in well with the guys and it’s the Big East,” Strus continued. “DePaul is a great school. I know we can do something special. We’re working on that.”

The 6-foot-6, 215-pound guard did just about everything for the Blue Demons (5-4). He shot 9-for-19 from the field, hit three 3-pointers, grabbed seven rebounds, handed out three assists, made three steals and soared like an eagle for a baseline dunk.

“Even when he wasn’t hitting shots, he never lost sight of what we were trying to do,” DePaul coach Dave Leitao said. “He made some plays late and that what good players are supposed to do.”

Junior Eli Cain also was a huge factor as the regular shooting guard filled in at the point for the injured Devin Gage. Cain looked a natural point guard while scoring 14 points with eight assists and eight rebounds.

“Strus plays hard, but Cain was the one that made the difference in the game,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “He’s a talented kid. You can play him at the 1, 2 or 3. I thought he did a great job for them and gave up himself scoring to create scoring for other people.”

UIC actually was decent defensively – a departure from the last couple of weeks of subpar to rotten performances – but the Flames’ offense was horrible.

The Flames (3-6) just could not hit from the field, shooting just 30.6 percent.

“It happens sometimes, shots don’t fall,” said redshirt sophomore guard Dominique Matthews, who led the Flames with 13 points. “We still did well on the defensive end, that’s the most important thing. Shots are going to (eventually) fall.”

The Flames had plenty of chances early as they stayed close for the entire first half. Despite committing 15 turnovers and in deep foul trouble with both Tai Odiase and Clint Robinson whistled for two early fouls apiece, UIC trailed just 29-26 at the half.

Tre’Darius McCallum (11 points) and Strus bookended a 12-2 run with 3-pointers to start the second half to open a 41-28 lead with 16:04 left in the game, making the Flames chase for the rest of the contest.

The Blue Demons were on a mission to avenge an 80-75 home loss to UIC last season.

“I took the loss last year personal,” Cain said. “We were all distraught.”

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC forward Dikembe Dixson can’t find a seam in the lane as Max Strus defends him during the second half.

Strus scored six straight points to extend DePaul’s lead to 57-43 before the Flames made one last gasp to draw closer.

Dikembe Dixson hit a 3-pointer to start an 8-0 run that pulled UIC to within 57-51 with 4:28 left.

Tai Odiase missed a pair of shots and Godwin Boahen was blocked at the rim by Brandon Cyrus before Strus hit a back-breaking triple with 3:04 left for a nine-point cushion. The Flames never got closer than seven after that.

Dixson’s 2-for-13 afternoon was indicative of UIC’s offensive performance. The Blue Demons stuck McCallum on him and he made Dixson uncomfortable.

“Tre always takes on the challenge of the team’s best player,” Leitao said. “He looked at film and watched some of Dixson’s tendencies from the beyond the arc and driving the ball. Tre’s athleticism and lateral movement really showed.”

McClain found some positives from this loss such as the Flames’ 42-34 rebounding advantage and improved defense.

“We definitely improved (defensively) and we rebounded, that was the difference,” McClain said. “(DePaul is) a team that’s been pounding people on the boards and we outrebounded them. We did some things better. We just have to grow off that. It’s a long season.”

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC center Tai Odiase, right, wins the opening tip against DePaul’s Marin Maric. Odiase set a new UIC career record for blocked shots.

FLAMES FLICKERS: Odiase became No. 1 in the Flames’ record books for career block shots, Scott VanderMeer (2006-09). Odiase had six rejections and now sits at 280 with VanderMeer in second with 274. Odiase is averaging six blocks in his last three games. … Senior reserve center Clint Robinson’s consecutive free-throw streak ended at 24 when he missed the second of two attempts with 13:11 left in the game. … Starting point guard Boahen shot just 2-for-9 from the field and 1-for-7 on 3-pointers with three turnovers. … After the 15 turnovers in the first half, UIC had just three in the second half. … DePaul leads the all-time series 9-2 and has never lost to UIC at the Pavilion. … After playing the last four seasons, McClain said he hopes the series continues in the future. … Strus’ sister, Maggie, played volleyball at UIC and was the program’s administrative assistant a couple of years ago.

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