While UIC still has not won a true road game during the Steve McClain era, Saturday’s performance at Grand Canyon proved the Flames are making huge strides forward. In a 73-69 loss, UIC (4-5) took Grand Canyon to the wire in a difficult road environment and even used a 12-0 run to take a 68-65 lead late in the second half.
Despite being a Division I program for only three years, Grand Canyon provides one of the most raucous atmospheres in college basketball. No. 11 Louisville went to GCU Arena and nearly lost last Saturday. Mountain West favorite San Diego State fell to the Antelopes there on Wednesday.
“This in college basketball in my 40-plus years was the toughest crowd I ever faced,” said Louisville coach Rick Pitino, a Hall-of-Famer. “It was awesome.
“You got something special here, really special. When you have this type of enthusiasm, it made us a much better team tonight. Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky, nothing was as tough as that environment tonight.”
When Grand Canyon (5-4) opened up a 65-56 lead with seven minutes left on Saturday, UIC’s upset bid appeared over. But the Flames responded impressively with 12 straight points in front of 6,804 in attendance.
Freshman guard Marcus Ottey began the run and quieted the crowd. Less than two minutes later, leading scorer Dikembe Dixson’s 3-pointer gave UIC their first lead since midway through the first half. Two free throws by Dixson with 3:42 remaining extended the Flames’ lead to 68-65.
Grand Canyon gained the advantage on Keonta Vernon’s three-point play with 59 seconds left, and then UIC’s youth finally started to show trailing 72-69. Dixson attempted a difficult pass to junior forward Tai Odiase on the next possession, and Antelopes guard DeWayne Russell stole it away.
UIC forced a miss on the other end but could not finish the possession as Russell flew in for an offensive rebound with 13 seconds left.
Russell split two free throws, and Ottey took the ball straight to the rim on the next possession. However, he traveled, giving the ball back to Grand Canyon and effectively ending the game with seven seconds left.
Grand Canyon held UIC without a field goal for the final 5:08 and forced five turnovers during that span. The Flames also missed two free throws in the closing minutes.
Dixson, a 6’7″ sophomore, led UIC with a game-high 19 points along with 7 rebounds. Freshman guard Tarkus Ferguson netted a career-high 16 points on 7-of-7 shooting, and junior forward Clint Robinson turned in 10 points and 5 boards in his first career start.
The Flames held Russell, the nation’s second-leading scorer, to 18 points on 5-of-21 (23.8%) shooting. Russell was averaging 26.7 points and shooting 47.9% from the field entering Saturday.