Rapid Reaction: Illinois 83, UIC 79

Photo: UIC Athletics

CHICAGO — Illinois barely held off UIC Saturday at the United Center. After trailing late in the second half, the Illini finished strong for an 83-79 victory.

Here’s a breakdown of what we learned in the big brother-little brother matchup:

 

—Dominique Matthews is the real deal. The freshman guard reached a new career-high in the first half alone with 18 points, including 12 points in a dominant two-minute stretch.

McClain put Matthews back on the floor with 3:44 left in the first half despite the freshman’s two fouls, and the gamble did not pay off. Matthews picked a quick third foul.

The young guard did not score in the second half before fouling out. He played only two minutes after halftime due to foul trouble.

But while he was on the floor, Matthews displayed his ability to shoot from the outside and drive strongly into the lane. He did not shy away from contact and made all six of his free throws.

UIC has a large, talented freshman class, and Matthews is emerging as the best scorer in the group.

 

—Dikembe Dixson ain’t too bad, either. Dixson got off to a slow start and had only three points in the first half. But when Matthews and point guard Paris Burns went to the bench early in the second half with foul trouble, Dixson took over.

He finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and four assists for his first career double-double. 17 of Dixson’s points came in the second half, as he took over and hit a couple of circus shots to boot.

Turnovers remain a problem, as Dixson had six Saturday and is now averaging 4.1 per game. But he’s shown how he can affect a game in a multitude of ways — scoring, passing, defending and rebounding.

Matthews has looked like the better pure scorer, but Dixson’s rebounding ability makes him just as good of a prospect in the Horizon League.

 

—The Flames showed some depth in the second half. When Matthews and Burns picked up their fourth fouls early in the second half, the Flames could have folded. They were using backup guards, including rarely used freshman Michael Kolawole, and the backcourt is Illinois’ strength.

But Kolawole and sophomore Lance Whitaker not only kept UIC within striking distance but played a big role as it cut into Illinois’ lead and eventually went ahead.

Whitaker tallied eight points and four assists all in the second half before fouling out.

Kolawole made a few freshman errors but also hit two key baskets during the Flames’ run.

 

—Disciple, or lack thereof, killed the Flames. Blame the new rules if you really want to, but UIC had 26 fouls to Illinois’ 13 because the Flames were reaching all day on defense. That’s expected with a young team, but even some veterans, like Burns and Whitaker, had a few avoidable fouls.

The Flames’ undisciplined defense put the Illini at the foul line 31 times, and they hit 21 of them.

 

—Illinois is more or less healthy now, and this team is still not that good.

The frontcourt is still thin with 6-foot-7 sophomore Leron Black and 6-foot-11 graduate student Mike Thorne Jr. out. But the backcourt is at full strength.

This team has talent. Almost half its players were top-100 recruits in high school, and others were four-stars ranked right outside that elite group.

UIC played its best game of the season, but especially with two of the Flames’ best players in foul trouble, the Illini should have run away with this one.

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