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Neely flips switch, Flames burn Rockets


December 30, 2009

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UIC’s Zavion Neely scored nine of his 13 points in a 14-0 run to start the second half.

Leading by just two points at halftime, UIC needed an infusion of energy on Tuesday night.

It was sophomore guard Zavion Neely who flipped the switch, energizing the Flames by keying a 14-0 run to begin the second half en route to UIC’s 66-52 victory over Toledo at the Pavilion.

It give Jimmy Collins a victory over his former assistant Gene Cross, who is in his second year as boss of the Rockets.

In a whirlwind 3 minutes, 34 seconds, the lightning-quick Neely scored nine points, collected three steals and assisted on two more baskets to help UIC take a double-digit lead that it would never relinquish.

“This was one of those games where you just can let a team hang around and let them get momentum,” said Neely, who finished with 13 points, three assists and a career-high five steals. “I know we had to pick it up and take over the game. I figured if my teammates saw me go hard, everybody else would go hard.”

The entire Flames’ team scrambled to make life difficult for the Rockets in the early part of the second half, applying pressure defense and rattling Toledo’s young lineup.

“Coach [Collins] figured out very quickly that we didn’t handle pressure very well,” said Cross, who was an assistant at UIC for six years. “That was our demise there in the second half. They did a good job of pressuring our guards. It caused us to be more on our heels and not on our toes.”

Robo Kreps led all scorers with 20 points for the Flames (4-8), and he also added five assists and five rebounds. Junior forward Brad Birton contributed a career-best 13 points. Point guard Spencer Stewart added eight points and a team-high seven rebounds.

Freshman Jake Barnett led the Rockets (3-10) with 14 points and seven rebounds, but he shot just 5-for-17.

UIC’s defense put the clamps on the Rockets, limiting them to 32 percent shooting and forcing 15 turnovers.

The Flames got some solid play from freshman center Louis Green, who had four points, four rebounds and a career-best four blocked shots while playing 16 minutes off the bench.

“The more experience Louis gets and the more these guys get used to him, the better we’ll be,” Collins said.

The Flames played a solid floor game, racking up 14 assists while turning the ball over a season-low six times. UIC also won this game on hustle as Stewart and Jeremy Buttell drew charges and freshman guard Corey Gray made a leaping save of a missed free throw.

“That’s what Coach [Collins] has preached all year,” Kreps said. “Those plays can win or lose a ballgame. Those extra possessions lead to extra points.”

Birton and Kreps each scored five points as the Flames took an early 10-3 advantage, but Toledo fought hard to stay close.

Barnett scored six straight points, including a three-point basket, to give the Rockets a 21-20 lead with 4:41 left in the first half.

Birton closed the half with a 12-foot jumper to give UIC a 28-26 lead at halftime, where Collins had a few words of inspiration for his charges.

“I just told them that they were a better team than how they were playing,” Collins said. “Some individuals weren’t giving what we see from them in practice. We talked about playing better defense and team ball and playing with better intensity.”

Collins was pleased about how the Flames responded after a 36-point loss at Wisconsin on Sunday.

“The guys could have came back and played this game with their tails tucked between their legs, but they did not do that,” Collins said. “It’s sure a sign of character when guys can come back and compete like they did tonight.”

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Toledo coach Gene Cross greeted several old friends before the game.

CROSSING PATHS: Despite falling to 10-35 at Toledo and 0-2 against his mentor, Cross was bittersweet about his return to the Pavilion.

“I had so many good memories in this building,” said Cross, who was an assistant on the Flames’ 1998 and 2002 NCAA tournament teams. “Those banners … just a lot of great memories.”

Before the game, Cross greeted many old friends at the scorer’s table and in the crowd.

Cross said some of the struggles that he is enduring with the Rockets are reminiscent of his early days at UIC when the Flames started 1-8 in 1996-97.

“You go into a program trying to put your stamp on it,” Cross said. “It’s so hard because there was culture that was there already. You have to do so many different things to change the culture. There are so many different layers to changing culture that people don’t understand.”

POSTON STATUS STILL UP IN AIR: When asked about the status of sophomore forward Jelani Poston, Collins said he was still uncertain.

“We don’t really know yet,” Collins said. “We’re still holding out hope. Nobody has actually told me that he’s out for the year. It sure would be nice to have him.”

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Former UIC center Scott VanderMeer (left) prepares for his halftime interview with broadcaster Adam Levinson.

FLAMES FLICKERS: Former Flames stars Josh Mayo and Scott VanderMeer were in attendance and were interviewed by Adam Levinson during halftime of the UIC radio broadcast. … Toledo freshman guard Malcolm Griffin was called for a technical foul for taunting a Flames player in the first half and dunking the ball. … Stewart made one of the highlight plays of the night when he snuffed a shot with 7:15 left in the first half and then ran the floor on a give-and-go with Kreps, leading to a Stewart layup at the other end.

UP NEXT: UIC returns to Horizon League play when Detroit visits the Pavilion for a special New Year’s Eve noon contest on Thursday.

The Titans are 9-4 overall and 2-0 in the Horizon League. Center Eli Holman, who has a great shot to be the conference’s newcomer of the year, is averaging 13.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.

Live coverage is available on the Horizon League Network at horizonleaguenetwork.tv (video) and espnchicago.com (audio).

In other recent news:
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Flames take bite out of Huskies (vs. NIU)(12/20/09)
Kreps finishes off Flames' comeback (vs. Oregon St.)(12/17/09)
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