Flames push back against Illini, but fall four points short
UIC outscored Illinois by seven points in the second half Saturday, but the deficit was too much to overcome as the Fighting Illini held on late for an 83-79 victory in front of a spirited crowd at Chicago’s United Center.
The non-conference game between sister institutions featured four ties, eight lead changes and no shortage of excitement in front of a raucous crowd of more than 5,000 fans.
Two freshmen rose to the occasion, playing on the same floor as the NBA’s Chicago Bulls. UIC newcomer Dominique Matthews scored a career-high 18 points, all in the first 13:08 of the ballgame. His classmate, Dikembe Dixson, had a quiet first half with three points but scored 17 in the second half and finished with 10 rebounds to secure his first collegiate double-double.
Illinois led by 11 points at the half and the advantage was still double digits at 10 points with 15:18 remaining in the contest. Thirty-three seconds later, Dixson sparked a terrific 15-3 run over the next 3:54 that got the Flames the lead back. Dixson was one of five different UIC players to find the bottom of the net during the surge that propelled the designated home team to a 56-54 lead with 11:18 remaining.
Thanks to a bucket inside by Tai Odiase and another jumper from Dixson, both with feeds from Lance Whitaker, UIC pushed its lead up to five points with more than nine minutes remaining. The teams swapped small runs and another triple from Dixson put the Flames in command, 65-63, with 5:15 remaining.
Illinois’ Malcolm Hill made two free throws with 3:49 remaining to break a 66-66 tie. UIC couldn’t regain the lead after that point. The Fighting Illini pushed their lead to eight down the stretch, but Gabe Snider and Paris Burns combined for 11 points in the final 60 seconds to keep it close. The Illini made their free throws, however, going 7-of-8 in the final minute.
Dixson was not the lone Flame to spark in the second half. After being held scoreless in 15 minutes of first-half action, Whitaker scored eight points and handed out four assists in 11 minutes during the second stanza. Burns added seven points and five assists in the second half alone, while Odiase netted seven points and grabbed a half-high six boards.
The Flames shared the basketball well during the second half, collecting 13 assists on 20 made field goals. They valued possession and only turned it over five times after committing double-digit miscues in the first half.
The Flames — particularly Matthews — were ready to go at the onset. Illinois scored the first three points, but Matthews scored 12 in a row for UIC to give his squad a seven-point lead with less than five minutes gone by in the contest. A 19-5 run by the Illini gave them a 24-17 advantage with just over seven minutes remaining in the frame and they didn’t relinquish the edge until UIC’s second-half fury commenced.
Burns joined Dixson (20) and Matthews (18) in double figures with 11 points. The senior guard handed out a season-high six assists. Dixson notched a career-high four assists in 36 minutes of run.
The Flames shot 47.6 percent for the game to secure their highest mark of the season against a Division I foe. UIC buried a season-high nine 3-pointers and shot 60 percent from beyond the arc. The squad out-rebounded the opposition for the second consecutive game and the third time in seven tries this year.
The Flames return to the UIC Pavilion Wednesday to host the Illinois State Redbirds at 8 p.m. Students are free with i-card; other tickets are available by calling 312-413-UIC1 or Ticketmaster.