Ferguson, Matthews, and Odiase Lead Flames Past Titans in Back-and-Forth Battle

In a game that had 19 lead changes, UIC endured past Detroit Mercy in an instant classic, 74-69. Both teams shot tremendously well behind the arc, while they struggled from two-point range. The Flames shot just 34.1% from two-point range, while they were a sizzling 45.5% (10-22) from downtown. The host Titans shot a paltry 26.7% from two-point range, while they were an impressive 45% (9-20) from three.  The biggest difference in the game, and the reason why the Titans did not make many two-pointers, was because of the Image result for uic flamesFlames stellar defense in blocking 12 shots. Not surprisingly, junior standout Tai Odiase had 5 blocked shots. There was a great sequence less than three minutes into the game, in which Odiase first blocked Corey Allen’s layup attempt, and then quickly recovered to block Jaleel Hogan’s shot from the paint.  Then, immediately on the other end, Odiase’s great defense was rewarded as he converted on an easy slam dunk. Odiase, the frontrunner for Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, added 7 points and 7 rebounds. What is so impressive about the Flames defense was the variety of blocked shots: From help a help defender anticipating a shot by moving from the weak side; to timing it right to block a jump shooter (which is very difficult to do); to a guard sticking with a ball handler and then blocking his shot as he drives to the basket.

Redshirt freshman Dominique Matthews provided much of the early offensive spark for the Flames, as he finished with 19 points. Matthews has been on absolute tear as of late, averaging 19.6 points per game in his last six contests. Freshman Tarkus Ferguson really led the charge in the second half, as he finished with 20 points, including 4-8 from three-point range. Power forward Clint Robinson was the Flames most efficient player, finishing with 8 points and 8 rebounds in just 12 minutes of play.   The Titans were led by freshman star Corey Allen, who had a game-high 21 points.  The H-League’s best three-point shooter continued to exhibit his long-range prowess, as he went 5-10 from downtown. The Titans were up by as many as 8 points on two separate occasions, but the Flames quickly narrowed the gap at both points in the game. Titan big men Jaleel Hogan and Gerald Blackshear were solid, combining for 22 points and 15 rebounds.  But the Titans interior defense gave up crucial baskets late in the game in the paint, which proved to be a big difference. The Flames also made some crucial free throws down the stretch, going 6-8 in the final two and a half minutes of the game.

This was a very entertaining game that featured two young teams, who should be significantly better next season.  But both are still very good right now, and will be difficult match-ups for any opponent in the upcoming Horizon League Tournament. UIC improves to 14-13 overall and 7-7 in league play, which will almost assuredly earn them a sixth place finish in the final league standings. Don’t forget that they are prevailing without their superstar guard Dikembe Dixson. Detroit Mercy falls to 6-20 overall and 4-10 in league play.  Seeing as they are currently one of four teams with 4 conference wins, the Titans will likely finish anywhere from 7th to 10th place. On Sunday afternoon, the Titans will host Valparaiso, while the Flames will travel north on I-75 to play at Oakland.

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Green Bay Pounds Valpo to Keep Pace in Horizon League Standings

In a battle of two of the best rebounding teams in the country, Green Bay (11th at 40.7 rpg) dominated the glass, as well of the turnover battle, en route to an emphatic 86-69 win over league-leading Valparaiso (21st at 39.9 rpg). Despite having two seven footers, and one of the nation’s best rebounders in Alec Peters, Valpo got pushed around on the boards all day, as Green Bay outrebounded them 53-32. The Phoenix also had 20 offensive rebounds, which led to a lot of second-chance scoring opportunities and a major reason the free throw disparity was so huge. Equally impressive was that Green Bay only had 4 turnovers in the first 30 minutes, and finished with just 8 total. The Phoenix had a balanced scoring attack, with five players in double-figures, led by Kerem Kanter with 17 points and Charles Cooper with 15, while Turner Botz and Warren Jones each added 12. TheImage result for green bay phoenix Phoenix never relinquished their lead after going up 6-4 in the early minutes. Green Bay was up by nine points at halftime, and that lead swelled up to as much as 23 points in the second half. Valparaiso did not give up though, as they cut the deficit to 10 points with just about two and a half minutes left. But Green Bay settled down and worked the clock down to get good shots. This can be difficult for them to do because it is in contrast to their high-tempo style of play. Both teams shot an unimpressive 41 percent from the field. But the big difference offensively was that Green Bay attempted 35 free throws (making 24), while Valpo attempted only 18 (making 11).  Peters led all players with 20 points, but he failed to reach double-digits in rebounds for just the third time in the last 15 games. Tevonn Walker added 16 points in the defeat.

This is a particularly impressive win for Green Bay, given the fact that they lost at Valpo by 24 points a few weeks ago.  More importantly, the Phoenix improves to 9-3 (15-9 overall) in the Horizon League, putting them just a half-game behind Valpo’s 9-2 (19-5 overall) record. Both teams firmly hold the league’s top two spots, which is important to get the opening round bye in the Horizon League Tournament. Green Bay has recovered nicely following Sunday’s shocking one-point loss at Detroit Mercy. But now they will embark on a tough four-game road stretch, where all of their games are on the road, beginning Thursday at Northern Kentucky. Meanwhile, Valpo looks to recover back at home, as they begin a two-game stand on Thursday against Cleveland State. Don’t be surprised if these two teams wind up playing one another in the championship game at Joe Louis Arena.  Not only have they distanced themselves as the league’s two best teams, they are also the two most experienced teams who are led by seasoned upperclassmen. If they do meet in the title game, it should be an epic because, unfortunately, the Horizon League will not be getting any at-large bids in the NCAA Tournament. Just like last season, Green Bay is starting to peak at the right time.

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Dixson’s Shooting Numbers Prove How Much His Game Has Improved

Prior to the game in mid-December at DePaul, in which he only played six minutes, UIC superstar sophomore Dikembe Dixson was averaging 22.2 points per game. More Image result for uic flamesimpressively, he was shooting the ball immensely better than last season, when he won the Horizon League Freshman of the Year. His field goal percentage was up nearly 11% at 47.7%. What is most interesting about this is that he was attempting only 14.4 field goals per game, compared to shooting nearly 3 more attempts per game last season. Fewer attempts plus a higher percentage equals a massive increase in offensive efficiency. From downtown, Dixson was shooting 36.7% (an increase of 6.3%). His free throw percentage stood at 78.6% (up over 12%). Not only was he shooting the ball well from the charity stripe, but he got there 9.1 times per game in those first nine contests. If he kept that pace up, he would be leading the nation in free throw attempts per game and would be among the leaders in free throws made. And keep in mind he was doing all of this while playing nearly five minutes less per game than last season.

Anyone who increases their shooting percentages by that much must have worked extremely hard in the off-season because that explains how these numbers could soar so much. Repetition, repetition, and repetition is how players become better shooters, by taking lots of focused shots in a competitive environment.  Another explanation is that Dixson was able to take better shots because he has much more talent around him than he did last season. The Horizon League’s top recruiting class took the offensive onus off of Dixson’s shoulders. As a result, this made the Flames more difficult to defend because they have so many scoring threats, while Dixson remained the apex of the offense. This season, he was able to play more of his natural positions of swingman or, at the collegiate level, the stretch four.  Last season, he had to run the point and handle the ball much more. Dixson’s great ability to drive to the basket and finish strong has been evident ever since he has been at UIC. But the fact that he went from a mediocre shooter to a very good one shows determination. He will undoubtedly use that same resilient mindset to recover from the season-ending injury he suffered early in the win over DePaul. Don’t be surprised if Dixson comes back as a better and even more complete player than he was in the first nine games of this season. For the rest of the Horizon League, that is a scary thought.

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Horizon League is as Deep and Wide Open as Ever…Definitely

Just when we thought we had the Horizon League figured out, upsets galore occurred making the perceived weak look strong, and the thought-to-be mighty look meek. It essentially began on Thursday January 12th, when the winless (in the league) Milwaukee Panthers shocked a suddenly slumping NKU Norse team, who just weeks earlier was ranked third in our league rankings. The next night, the Detroit Mercy Titans traveled north on I-75 to outlast the first place Oakland Golden Grizzlies. Junior forward Jaleel Hogan was instrumental in the improbable Titan victory, carrying his team with a 39 point and 11 rebound performance for the ages. Then, for at least a day, things seemed to normalize. Wright State overcame a halftime deficit to defeat the again upset-minded Panthers. Valparaiso eventually kicked it into high gear to win at Cleveland State, and UIC needed OT to stay firmly in the league’s upper echelon by beating the seemingly always underperforming Youngstown State Penguins. Then came a Monday that no one saw coming. The 5-0 Green Bay Phoenix had a chance to assert themselves as the league’s Image result for horizon league basketballundisputed top dog. What happens? Valpo blows them out. Detroit Mercy is supposed to come down from their euphoric state and fall to Youngstown State, right?  Wrong.  The Titans have a deep bench and appear to be gaining confidence every day, making them a dangerous team to play come March.  And most shockingly, Oakland should have bounced back after their Metro Series loss and steamrolled Cleveland State.  But, you guessed it, another visitor had a career night at the expense of the Golden Grizzlies. This time it was Detroit native Rob Edwards, as the Vikings handed Oakland their second straight loss at home.

What is the moral of this wacky and inexplicable Horizon League extended weekend?   That this league (and its NCAA Tournament berth) is essentially anyone’s for the taking. It might just come down to who peaks at the right time and, like in the Oakland / Detroit Mercy game, who wants it more.  The only teams right now that I cannot see winning Motor City Madness are Youngstown State, Cleveland State, and Milwaukee. The Penguins cannot stop anyone defensively, the Vikings cannot rebound the ball and have a lack of interior talent, and the Panthers simply cannot put enough points on the board.  But then again, I never would have thought Oakland would lose both of those games at home. Maybe Northern Kentucky’s superior post scorers, Drew McDonald and Carson Williams, will get the Norse to their first NCAA Tournament. Or maybe one of the nation’s youngest teams, the UIC Flames, will finish at a fiery pace, all without their superstar Dikembe Dixson. Maybe Green Bay is bound to repeat as tourney champs with their experienced, high-scoring squad. Or maybe the cream will indeed rise to the top, and the two predicted best teams of Oakland and Valpo will square off in the championship game. Maybe Mark Alstork and Steven Davis will put the Raiders on their backs and do what last year’s team couldn’t.  Or maybe Detroit’s College Team will close down Joe Louis Arena the storybook way, with the hometown team winning. That was a lot of maybes. But one thing is for sure: These next several weeks of the Horizon League basketball season will be exciting, memorable, and completely unpredictable.

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Valpo’s Peters Makes Wooden Award Top 25 List

Valparaiso senior forward Alec Peters is one of just two players from mid-major conferences to make the Wooden Award Midseason Top 25 list. Gonzaga’s (West Coast Conference) Nigel Williams-Goss is the other. Peters is also just one of seven seniors to get the honor. The list will be whittled down to 20 next month. The John R. Wooden Award is awarded annually to the best college basketball player at the NCAA Division 1 level.

Peters is currently tied for second in the nation in scoring at 24.2 points per game. He is also averaging 10.4 rebounds per game, and is fourth in the nation with 111 made free throws. Valparaiso is currently 12-4 and 2-1 in Horizon League play.

Peters being a senior might be a slight advantage, as seniors have won the award the past three years, most recently with Oklahoma forward Buddy Hield.

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Photo Recap: Oakland Gets by NKU in Hard-Fought Game

I attended today’s (12/31/16) game at the O’Rena between Northern Kentucky and Oakland. It was an exciting and physical game. Normally, it is just my writing that fills up this website. But today, I took some pictures that I thought everyone would enjoy. So here’s a photo-recap.

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Walker Dominates in Second Half as Valpo Outlasts UIC

Junior guard Tevonn Walker scored 17 of his game-high 23 points in the second half to help Valparaiso stave off repeated comeback attempts by UIC and win 70-59. The momentum started to shift in UIC’s favor with about 15 minutes left in regulation, as they were trailing 38-30.  First, junior forward Kyle Guice made a great pass from the perimeter to Flames big man Tai Odiase, who slam dunked it. Then, freshman Tarkus Ferguson nailed a three from the wing. Ferguson then proved how great offense can lead to stellar defense, as he then stole the ball at the top of the key, which led to a layup for him and cut the Flames deficit to just one point. But then Walker started to carry the Crusaders and

Tevonn Walker

Valpo junior guard Tevonn Walker. Photo courtesy of valpoathletics.com

take the game over, scoring their next 8 points, which included two three-pointers from the wing. Walker was equally comfortable driving and finishing at the basket, as no UIC defender could quell his quickness. One could say that Walker nearly pitched a perfect game, as he was 8-9 from the field, 5-5 from the free throw line, and only had two turnovers.


The first half was a bit sloppy with both teams combining for 17 turnovers, which included several traveling violations on each team.  Walker also did a nice job defensively, as he drew two player-control (charging) fouls. Aside from taking a charge himself, Odiase also had 3 of his game-high 4 blocked shots in the opening half. There was not very much transition offense, as both teams set-up their offensives in the half court.  Valpo senior Shane Hammink scored only 4 points in the game and had a frustrating first half, which culminated in a technical foul, after he tossed the ball in the air when he was called for traveling in the backcourt.  UIC guards Ferguson and Godwin Boahen continued their excellent rookie campaigns, as they combined for 29 points on 11-21 shooting from the field. They also combined for 8 turnovers, which is not really that bad considering how often they handle the ball.

UIC’s biggest lead was 14-9 early in the game. But once Valpo took the lead a few minutes later, they held onto it for good. This was a physical game and the officials did a great job in calling it fairly. A good example was when UIC’s Clint Robinson and Valpo’s Alec Peters were going for a rebound on UIC’s side of the court. Veteran referee Lamont Simpson signaled a foul and then pointed to the other side of the court, meaning that it would be Valpo’s ball. But he promptly corrected himself that the foul was on Peters, and the ball would go to UIC. This shows how even the best college basketball officials can have momentary memory lapses. Speaking of Peters, the likely All-American went just 5-15 from the field, which including air-balling two three-pointers. UIC did a good job in clogging the lane and making it difficult for him to get to the basket. But he still finished with 18 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 assists, which is an impressive stat-line for anyone.

This game marks the 16th consecutive win for Valpo over UIC. But it is clear that UIC is only getting better with every game, as they are the third youngest team in Division 1 college basketball. One cannot forget that UIC’s best player, Dikembe Dixson, did not play and is done for the season with a knee injury. Valpo continues to show their lack of depth, which is likely to catch up with them as the season wears on. But Walker’s play has to be encouraging for Crusaders fans, as he clearly had his best game of the season, which happened to be when his team really needed him. And don’t forget about the play of redshirt freshman center Derrik Smits, who had career-highs in points (11) and rebounds (6). He stepped up big in the absence of injured senior forward Jubril Adekoya.

Both teams are off until next Friday night when each will host one of the Horizon League’s Michigan teams. Valpo (11-3, 1-0) will host Oakland, in what should be an epic battle of the league’s two top teams.  UIC (7-7, 0-1) will host struggling Detroit Mercy.

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