When it mattered most, UIC finally completed a comeback.
The Flames had trailed by 19 points at halftime Tuesday against the Wright State Raiders (11-20, 3-13 Horizon), but that seemed like a long time ago when Jay Harris‘ 3-pointer dropped in to give them a 58-57 lead with 1:13 left.
A few stops later, the Flames (9-23, 4-12) were celebrating on the floor with an improbable 60-57 victory in the first round of the Horizon League Tournament.
“We were due. That’s the bottom line,” coach Howard Moore said. “These kids have been battling for me all season long. … I challenged them to look inside themselves and find a way to get this done. It wasn’t about X’s and O’s. It was about who wanted to advance most. And our guys had a tremendous amount of fight in the second half. ”
Several times this season, UIC dug a hole and made a late comeback. However, in all those previous occasions the Flames fell a few points short.
That happened last week against Green Bay, when UIC erased a 17-point deficit to tie the game 61-61 with 2:54 left. The Flames lost 72-67.
About a month earlier, the Flames cut Valparaiso’s 18-point lead down to one point but lost 70-65.
The trend began all the way back in the first game of the season, when DePaul lost control of a 21-point advantage and UIC took a brief lead in the final minute. Then the Flames allowed a game-winning 3-pointer in the final seconds of a 72-71 loss.
Tuesday was different. UIC came out flat and trailed 39-20 going into the second half.
The Flames chipped away little by little, but the Raiders maintained a double-digit lead into the final nine minutes. Even going into the final five minutes, Wright State still led 55-46.
Then the big run began.
Senior Ahman Fells made a jumper, Harris made two free throws and junior forward Jason McClellan recorded a key offensive rebound and putback to cut UIC’s deficit to 55-52.
After another of Wright State’s 14 turnovers, Fells pulled up from the right wing and nailed a 3-pointer to tie the game. UIC converted those 14 giveaways into 26 points.
“When (the ball) came back to me I said, ‘I’ve got to hit this shot. For me, my teammates. I need this shot,'” said Fells, who finished with 11 points. “We’re seniors. Every game could be our last game, so I just gotta make the shot so our team could advance.”
And it was only fitting that Harris, who reminded media after every game late in the season not to count UIC out of the Horizon League race, made what became the game-winner one possession later.
“It felt great,” said Harris, who scored 15 of his game-high 23 points in the second half. “Did you see the crowd? That was the loudest they’ve been all year.”
Harris’ shot gave the Flames their first lead since the 8:31 mark of the first half, but the job was not done yet.
UIC let freshman guard Grant Benzinger, who had made both of his 3-point attempts so far, get free on the perimeter, but Benzinger missed a good look.
Wright State got another stop and had a chance to win down 58-57. But as freshman guard Justin Mitchell drove to the hoop, Fells picked his pocket.
“We needed a stop,” Fells said. “I seen him dribbling and spin, so I saw that as my chance to go. It’s now or never. He seemed a little bit antsy with the ball, so I just went to go get it.”
Mitchell had the best all around night of any Wright State player with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 3 assists. Wright State coach Billy Donlon hopes that final sequence doesn’t erase how important he was in even giving the Raiders a chance in this game.
“Everybody’s gonna remember the last play. For anybody to think that kid didn’t play great is crazy,” Donlon said. “He’s learning. He’s growing. He’s a freshman that was put in a really difficult position, and tonight didn’t work out.”
Harris made two free throws after the turnover, and then Reggie Arceneaux‘s final attempt to force overtime was nowhere close.
“Finally we were able to finish one off,” Fells said of the come-from-behind victory. “It meant a lot to us.”
UIC advances to Friday’s second round of the tournament, where it faces Oakland on a neutral-site at Valparaiso. The Golden Grizzlies swept the Flames in the regular season.