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Scrappy Flames take bite out of Huskies

KREPS, BUTTELL LEAD UIC TO 2ND STRAIGHT WIN

December 20, 2009

Whoosh! photo

UIC point guard Spencer Stewart (right) drives as Jeremy Buttell sets a screen on NIU’s Xavier Silas in the first half.

Showing a blend of aggressiveness and tenacity, UIC was able to overcome an early deficit and cruise to a 69-49 victory over Northern Illinois at the Pavilion on Saturday afternoon.

Junior guard Robo Kreps tied his career-high with 25 points and set a new career-best with nine rebounds to lead the Flames’ charge. Senior forward Jeremy Buttell added a career-best 16 points, seven rebounds and three steals and sophomore guard Zavion Neely zipped his way to 13 points and three steals as UIC (3-6) earned its second straight win.

“It was a very good team win,” UIC coach Jimmy Collins said. “I thought we maintained intensity for the entire 40 minutes.”

The Huskies (1-7) opened the game with an 11-4 lead in the first 3:30 of the game, but the Flames began to respond. UIC scored the next 10 points, which included three jump shots, before finally taking it to the Huskies.

Neely and Kreps hit back-to-back driving layups to help spur an 18-2 explosion, which gave the Flames a 22-13 advantage.

“We were settling in those first couple of minutes,” Kreps said. “We were told at the beginning of the game that we needed to drive them, and the lanes got open for us.”

UIC led by as many as 16 points in the first half when K.C. Robbins scored back-to-back baskets for a 34-18 lead with 3:30 left before intermission.

NIU showed a little fight, displaying superiority on the offensive glass, closing the first half on a 9-1 run to trim the deficit to 36-27 at the break.

The Huskies had 21 offensive rebounds for the game and held a 20-12 advantage on the glass during the first half.

“The only letdown was that they had 21 offensive rebounds, because they are a tough, scrappy team,” Collins said. “The good part about it was that we were able to scrap back to the tune of a win.”

The Flames had a comfortable cushion because they shot 54 percent in the opening period, but was their defense that helped slam the door. UIC held the Huskies to 32 percent shooting for the game and forced 16 turnovers.

“Our defensive effort was definitely there,” Collins said. “Anytime you hold a team this athletic to 49 points, you obviously did a pretty good job on the defensive end. The thing we did more tonight that I can recall in previous games was we communicated, we talked, we moved. We were certainly helping each other and were stepping up to take charges.”

The determination and extra effort on the defensive end helped the Flames build momentum.

“Coach [Collins] has been preaching that to us all year, saying that teams have been beating us on the scrappiness, the loose balls and the hustle plays,” Buttell said. “That’s something I’ve tried to do more recently and we’ve been feeding off each other.”

The Flames kept up their aggressive play in the second half, never letting the Huskies get closer than eight points.

“Their guards did a terrific job of getting us back on our heels in transition and attacking the paint,” NIU coach Ricardo Patton said. “They attacked it either to score or to pitch and their shooters stepped up and made shots.”

Tony Nixon hit two free throws to draw NIU within 51-43 with 10:11 left in the game, but UIC broke the game wide open with a 10-0 run, which included 6-for-8 shooting from the foul line.

Michael Fakuade led the Huskies with 11 points and nine rebounds.

Collins played only nine players and liked what he saw from his tighter rotation.

“We’re trying to play everybody that is worthy,” Collins said. “If guys are showing me in practice that they need to be out there, they’re certainly going to be out there.”

Whoosh! photo

Corey Gray proved to be a valuable part of UIC’s rotation against NIU.

SHADES OF GRAY: Freshman guard Corey Gray played the best game of his young Flames career by tallying a career-high five points in 12 minutes off the bench.

Gray’s offensive arsenal included two floaters off drives to the basket. On defense, he drew a charging foul on NIU’s Mike DiNunno with 5:02 left in the first half.

The freshman from Missouri City, Texas, is one of only six Flames to appear in every game this season. He had just two points (on free throws) coming into Saturday’s game.

ROBBINS STRUGGLES: Robbins, the Flames’ 6-foot-11-inch junior center, has slumped in the last three games. Other than two first-half field goals on Saturday, Robbins finished with no rebounds, two turnovers and four fouls in 14 minutes off the bench.

Collins said Robbins hasn’t been the same since he swung his elbows in frustration and knocked down DePaul’s Mario Stula in the Dec. 13 loss at Allstate Arena.

“We’ve got to get him back to where he was before the DePaul game,” Collins said. “K.C. was starting to come along before that, now he’s kind of in a fog. As a team, we’ve got to embrace him and get him back to playing like he was before that incident.

“When he’s out there, we add power. Once K.C. starts playing like he can play, it will be a tremendous boost for us.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: Point guard Spencer Stewart finished with four assists and hit a desperation three-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer in the second half for his only field goal. UIC is 2-0 since Stewart returned to the starting lineup against Oregon State on Wednesday. … The 49 points allowed by UIC is the lowest since a 60-49 win against Loyola in the Horizon League tournament quarterfinals on March 7, 2008. … The Flames closed the rebounding gap to a 42-38 deficit by the end of the game. … UIC’s seven turnovers were a season-low. … The Flames are 1-1 against the MAC this season with games with Akron and Toledo still to come.

UP NEXT: The Flames hit the road for game against Akron on Tuesday night at Rhodes Arena.

The Zips are 7-3 and boast incredible balance as six players average between 8.5 and 7.5 points per game. UIC will have to find a way to combat 7-foot freshman center Zeke Marshall, a top-100 recruit.

Tip time is 6 p.m. Live coverage is available on gozips.com for a fee. The UIC radio broadcast will be tape delayed on WMVP-AM 1000 after Bulls coverage (approximately 9:30 p.m.).

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