UIC Flames burn Phoenix with late comeback on home court

By JeffGraveline

The UIC Flames did it again, rallying from behind to snatch a win from what looked like defeat. The Flames posted a 54-point second half on Feb. 25 to take a 78-71 victory over the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Phoenix in Horizon League play at the UIC Pavilion.

For the UIC Flames mens basketball team, the 2009-2010 season has been rough. With a Horizon League record of just 2-14 and an overall record of 7-20, the Flames limped into their second to last game of the regular season against the Green Bay Phoenix, third place in the Horizon League, with upset on their minds.

The Flames would do just that, coming back from 14 points down midway through the second half to come from behind to win 78-71 against the Phoenix.

“I think this was a game that showed our team is a team of very, very good character,” said Flames head coach Jimmy Collins. “Win, lose or draw, I’m very, very proud of the way we played tonight, especially after coming from 14 down in our second game in a row.”

Coming off a 14-point rally in the second half against Evansville (Ind.) to notch their sixth win of the season, the Flames took the hardwood at the UIC Pavilion and tried to string together back-to-back wins for the third time this season.

Following the tipoff, both teams traded baskets in the early going with UIC taking an early 10-2 lead at the 12 minute mark in the first half.

Green Bay wouldn’t trail for long as the Phoenix quickly took the lead away from the Flames and pushed the tempo of the game. The Flames and Phoenix would go baseline to baseline on back-and-forth fast breaks that favored the Phoenix and their ability to clean the glass, snatching rebounds on both the offensive and defensive sides of the court.

Green Bay would open up a 24-16 lead with 5:03 to play, while holding UIC scoreless for nearly six minutes. The Flames mounted a small comeback late in the first but,  as the teams headed to the locker rooms for the break, Green Bay still held a 32-24 lead.

The 8-point cushion the Phoenix built in the first half grew to 14 points in just three minutes of play in the second half. With things looking bad for the Flames, it was senior forward Jeremy Buttell who stepped up in a big way for UIC.

Buttell would hit back-to-back-to-back shots from behind the arc in three consecutive trips down the court, including the final three in which he was fouled by Green Bay’s Troy Cotton and converted the four-point play.

Buttell’s bombardment from long range pulled the Flames out of the fire and put them within range to mount their second straight 14-point comeback in as many games. After his four-point play, Buttell and the Flames went from being down 14 to down just 5 with 12:42 to play, 45-40.

“The whole second half, after we got out of halftime, we said we really had to come with it,” Buttell said. “We had to throw the first punch in the second half.”

With the Phoenix in range, UIC poured in the points and worked the boards down the stretch in the tail end of the second half. As UIC pulled closer it was the dribble, drive penetration of sophomore guard Zavion Neely that keyed the Flames’ efforts.

“Clearly, that was our worst half of the year,” said Green Bay coach Tod Kowalczyk. “We didn’t guard anybody. We just allowed dribble penetration, and that was the story of the second half.”

Neely would finish with 18 points in the game, including 13 in the second half.

“I saw a lot of openings, coach just told me when I get someone one-on-one to just take them, no matter what,” Neely said.

UIC would take their first lead of the game since near the 12 minute mark of the first half, 48-47, with just 9:20 to play.

With only a point of separation, the teams traded baskets for the next four minutes before UIC started to pull away, thanks to junior guard Robo Kreps hitting a 3-pointer and then swiping the ball from Phoenix guard Rahmon Fletcher for an easy lay-in to put the game away.

As time wound down, the Phoenix could do nothing but foul and watch as Kreps hit shot after shot at the line, Kreps would go 8 of 8 from the charity stripe in the waning minutes of the game to seal the victory for the Flames, 78-71.

“We have to buckle down and find a way [to bounce back],” Kowalczyk said. “[This game has to be a spring board], we have to use it that way.”

The 54 second-half points the Flames scored were a season high for UIC, and the victory locked up a winning record at the UIC Pavilion for the team. Kreps led all scorers with 24 points, while Fletcher led Green Bay with 17 points in the loss.

“We’ve talked about playing together, sticking together, all year, through adversities,” Collins said. “Just hanging tough and continuing to fight. I personally think that we’ve done that.”

Green Bay’s loss, coupled with a Wright State’s victory over Youngstown State on the same night, knocked the Phoenix out of contention for second place in the Horizon League.

The Horizon League tournament begins on March 2. Visit www.UICFlames.com for information about where the Flames will play and how to watch or listen to the game.