CHICAGO — UIC seemed finish. Less than three minutes into the second half Thursday, the Flames trailed the Green Bay Phoenix by 17 points.
Then UIC made an unlikely push. The Flames trimmed the deficit possession by possession until they eventually tied the score at 61 with with 2:54 left.
In front of a home crowd, UIC should have had Green Bay on its heels. Instead, the Phoenix came out of a timeout and regained the lead as senior guard Keifer Sykes got an open layup of a well-executed play.
Then the wheels fell off for UIC, who had a turnover, a missed free throw, two missed layups and a crucial failure to secure a defensive rebound in the final 2:06 of what became a 72-67 loss.
“I thought in the first half we just really weren’t locked in to what we needed to do,” UIC coach Howard Moore said. “Once we got in that hole, it’s difficult to come back on a team like that. … I challenged [my] guys in halftime, and they came out in the second half with a different purpose, a lot more aggressive demeanor.”
After Green Bay bumped its lead back to 5 points, UIC senior Jay Harris hit a contest 3-pointer to bring the Flames back within 69-67 with 17 seconds remaining.
The Flames fouled Sykes, who made the first free throw but missed the second. However, a miscommunication on the boxout between center Tai Odiase and guard Markese McGuire allowed Green Bay forward Alfonzo McKinnie to get a hand on the rebound, tapping it back out to Sykes.
Sykes, who finished with a career-high 36 points and scored his 2,000th career point as well, went back to the line and converted on a pair.
“Keifer had a mission to come out and dominate,” Moore said.
McGuire missed a wild layup on the other end, effectively sealing the game.
“I’d rather us come back and play with great effort than just allow someone to come in and impose their will,” Moore said.
Harris led UIC with 26 points in his most efficient game of the season. He shot 8-of-9 from the field, including four 3-pointers, and 6-of-7 at the charity stripe.
Although he had 3 turnovers, he also dished out 4 assists and finished with a 160 offensive rating.
Odiase also gave the Flames 17 effective minutes, posting 10 points on 3-of-3 shooting. The 6-foot-9 freshman has struggled at the line this season, but he made 4-of-5 against the Phoenix.
“I’m just trying to whatever to get my team the win,” Odiase said. “They told me to go out there and play with confidence, so I did.”
UIC moves on to the final game of the regular season Saturday against Wright State. Both teams are 3-12 in conference play and are already locked in to play each other in the first round of the conference tournament.
The only question is which team will get homecourt advantage Tuesday, and Saturday’s game will decide that.
“We’re still fighting, and we still have time,” Harris said. “We can’t be down, because we’ve been in worse positions. We’re gonna go back to practice and work hard.”