The Horizon League Tournament had been nothing short of chaotic heading into Sunday’s action. Game one of the night saw more of the same as sixth-seeded UIC upset 3 seed Green Bay, making the higher-seeded teams 0-5 in tournament play. But Northern Kentucky finally came through and got the higher seeds a win when they took down Wright State in the night’s finale.
(6) UIC 79, (3) Green Bay 70
The UIC Flames were a trendy pick in the preseason to contend with the Horizon League elite. Injuries, however, particularly to preseason First Team All-League selection Dikembe Dixson, hampered UIC in conference play as the Flames finished 7-11.
In Sunday night’s quarterfinal against Green Bay, some of UIC’s potential came to life on the court as the Flames upset the defending tournament champions. In fact, with 3:53 left in the game, UIC led by 17, signaling just how good it could be.
Head coach Steve McClain attributed much of UIC’s success to finally getting over some of the injuries that had plagued them.
“It made a big difference for us finally having all our guys,” he said. “Having Godwin [Boahen] back allowed me to rotate the guards more and keep guys fresher.”
Dominique Matthews benefited from that extra rotation, scoring 16 points for the Flames in just 22 minutes.
However, the final minutes of the game were nearly a nightmare for the Flames. That 17-point lead with 3:53 to play was cut down to just two with 1:08 on the clock. Green Bay turned up the defensive pressure and forced six UIC turnovers down the stretch. The Flames lacked the experience Green Bay had and it started to show.
Matthews was able to stop the bleeding with two clutch free throws. From there, it was all Flames, as Green Bay ran out of steam. UIC finished the game on a 7-0 run, accomplished at the free throw line.
UIC advances to the semifinals on Monday night, whereit will take on 10 seed Milwaukee. That game will take place at 9:30 p.m. ET on ESPNU. Tai Odiase could be key for the Flames in that game, much like he was on Sunday. Odiase finished with 16 points, eight rebounds, and five blocked shots against Green Bay. UIC will need him against a Milwaukee squad that has played excellent defense in its two tournament wins.
Whether or not Green Bay will participate in a postseason tournament is unknown. What is known is that the Phoenix will lose six seniors going into next season, including Second Team All-League selection Charles Cooper, who finished with 15 points in Sunday’s loss.
Green Bay coach Linc Darner feels as though there is reason for hope moving forward, and named Kerem Kanter as a key player returning for the Phoenix. Kanter led all scorers on Sunday night with 19 points and tacked on 13 rebounds for a double-double. He will look to lead Green Bay into the future next year.
(4) Northern Kentucky 82, (5) Wright State 77
For the first time at this year’s Horizon League tournament, the higher seed won.
The Norse used a late offensive outburst to create some separation in what had been a back-and-forth contest. Northern Kentucky connected on 14 straight field goal attempts beginning at the 12:24 mark in the second half and lasting until only 2:02 remained. Carson Williams was key during that stretch. He finished as Northern Kentucky’s leading scorer despite only having two points of his 17 points in the first half.
The Norse’s hot shooting kept Wright State at bay. The Raiders shot 48.6 percent in the second half and got excellent offensive performances from Grant Benzinger, Mark Alstork, and Justin Mitchell. Benzinger in particular had a strong night, leading the Raiders with 29 points on seven threes.
Foul trouble also plagued Wright State late in the game. At one point in the second half, both Alstork and Steven Davis were benched with four fouls.
“It’s just next guy up,” Benzinger said. “If somebody gets in foul trouble, ‘oh well,’ next guy comes in. Just do your job.”
Undoubtedly though, it was his production along with Mitchell’s 12 points, 12 rebounds, and seven assists that kept Wright State in the game.
Northern Kentucky moves on to Monday’s semifinals as the highest remaining seed in the tournament. It will take on Youngstown State at 7 p.m. ET on ESPNU. The Norse will try to avoid the fate of other top seeds in the tournament, including the 1 seed Oakland, who the Penguins upset on Saturday.
The Norse will turn to Lavone Holland’s leadership on Monday night. Holland kept Northern Kentucky’s offense rolling on Sunday with 16 points and nine assists. He had a good deal of success getting to the basket against Wright State and may have a similar opportunity against Youngstown State.