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Tandem offense

Dixson, Matthews in rhythm together

By Mike Pankow

December 26, 2017

Mike Pankow/Whoosh!

UIC’s Dikembe Dixson fires a jumper over Trinity Christian’s Juozas Balciunas during the first half Saturday.

When Dikembe Dixson and Dominique Matthews stepped on to the UIC campus nearly 2½ years ago, many thought the two three-star recruits would mesh quickly.

However, that plan took some time as both players endured season-ending injuries within their first two seasons with the Flames as Matthews had a broken thumb two seasons ago and Dixson a torn knee ligament last season.

Even though they’ve only been on the court together for about 40 percent of the Flames’ games, Dixson and Matthews finally look like they have found a combined rhythm as the redshirt sophomores combined for 45 points Saturday afternoon in UIC’s 84-45 win over Trinity Christian at the Pavilion.

“I feel like we have good chemistry, because he’s a shooter and I’m driver,” said Dixson, who scored a season-high 25 points on 9-for-18 shooting. “I have to know where he’s at. We’ve played a lot together in practice.”

Matthews also a scored a season high, pouring in 20 points on 7-for-16 shooting, including a career-high-tying six 3-pointers. He has hit double figures in eight of his last nine games.

“It’s been great,” Matthews said. “I always knew that we can be good together every time we step on the court.”

After a couple of narrow road losses against Illinois State and Northern Illinois, Saturday’s contest was just what Santa ordered for UIC.

After a slow start, Dixson spearheaded a 17-2 run with 10 points on a variety of drives and mid-range jumpers. After the smoke cleared, UIC led 35-14 with 3:42 left in the opening period.

Dixson finished the half with 17 points and provided an emphatic close with a steal and a dunk in the final seconds for a 45-23 advantage at intermission.

Dixson had endured some shooting struggles in recently games, shooting 18-for-62 (29 percent) over his previous four games. Dixson righting him offensively wasn’t even coach Steve McClain’s proudest moment from his 6-foot-7 superstar.

“No. 22 (Caleb Jonkman) scored a couple of baskets and Dikembe actually asked to take him (defensively),” McClain said. “He hasn’t asked a lot to take a good offensive player.”

Jonkman led the NAIA-level Trolls (5-12, playing this an exhibition) with 15 points, but he shot just 5-for-13 and 2-for-9 from 3-point range.

“A lot of people say I don’t play defense, so I’m trying to get better at that every day,” said Dixson, who added four steals. “I know I can play defense. Sometimes I make some errors, but I’m getting better at that.”

The Flames shot a solid 43.3 percent from the field and racked up 14 assists with primary point guards Tarkus Ferguson (foot) and Godwin Boahen (head) out due to injury.

“Today the ball moved. We got good looks and we’re not as bad of a shooting team as we’ve showed,” McClain said. “For the last two weeks, we’ve had to play with a lineup that’s completely different what we were playing with four weeks ago. I think Dom just stepped up and made wide-open shots and that’s what we need him to do.”

UIC blew away Trinity Christian in the second half, leading by as many as 40 while outrebounding the Trolls 48-29 and held them to 28.6 percent shooting. The 45 points were the fewest the Flames have allowed the McClain era.

“I thought we got out of the game exactly what we wanted,” McClain said. “We guarded and for the last 2½ weeks, we’ve really been guarding and rebounding, and that’s what I didn’t want to lose that in this game.

“My challenge to my guys was ‘If you’re not guarding, you’re not playing today.’ I thought they really took it upon themselves to make sure they played.”

Now the Flames break for the holiday before starting Horizon League play against Wright State on Thursday — the first of a three-game road swing that also includes defending Horizon tournament champion Northern Kentucky and league newcomer IUPUI.

“We’ve seen a lot of these teams before,” Matthews said. “We’ve got to come prepared. We’re missing a few players, so we’ve really got to bring it together.”

McClain feels the players now have some incentive going into conference play.

“I love it when people write when we’re disappointments and we’re this and that,” McClain said. “Half of those people haven’t watched us play, they don’t know the schedule we’ve played and we’ve had to deal with injuries. I think this team can still be as good as they want to be.”

FLAMES FLICKERS: In all likelihood, Boahen will be ready return when the Flames play Wright State. … Both of the Flames’ post players had strong games: Tai Odiase had 11 points and six rebounds and Clint Robinson scored a season-high 13 points to go with eight rebounds and three blocks. They combined to shot 10-for-14 from the free-throw line. … The contest, two days before Christmas against a non-Division I school, only drew 734 fans, but McClain was appreciative of the crowd that did show: “I want to thank the people who took time out of their holiday schedules to come today. It’s busy time for everybody. In our (basketball) life, it doesn’t stop.”

POSTGAME VIDEOS:

In other recent news:
Northern Illinois 69, UIC 63: State of disappointment (12/22/17)
Illinois State 71, UIC 70: Cruel road (12/20/17)
UIC 76, Dartmouth 60: Point made (12/16/17)
DePaul 65, UIC 55: The kid that got away (12/12/17)
UIC 76, Wis.-Parkside 48: That’s more like it (12/7/17)
Loyola 85, UIC 61: Crosstown classic beatdown (12/4/17)
Troy 87, UIC 66: Lost trip continues (12/1/17)
Kentucky 107, UIC 73: Brush with greatness (11/28/17)