INDIANAPOLIS — With just over two minutes to play in the first half, UIC guard Tarkus Ferguson snapped the ball between his legs and took a step back at the free throw line. As he created separation from the opposing defender, Ferguson calmly rose up and sank a jumper from just inside the arc to tally his 16th point of the first half. He shook his head as he ran back down the floor with a look of “they can’t guard me” on his face.
And he was justified in doing so. Wright State could not in fact guard him as the senior scored a game-high 25 points.
But as good as Ferguson was, UIC’s league-best defense was the driving force behind the Flames’ 73-56 rout of No. 1 seed Wright State in the Horizon League Tournament semifinals. The Raiders’ offense came into the game averaging 81.4 points, which ranked fifth in the country, but UIC’s length and athleticism overwhelmed Wright State from the jump.
“I was more focused on defense. I knew eventually that the offense would get going and if we play defense, the offense will take care of itself,” the senior guard proudly said after the game.
The Flames hit the gas pedal early and established their preferred pace of play. Just over five minutes into the game, UIC had already raced out to a double-digit lead. By halftime, UIC held a comfortable 41-25 advantage. Wright State had been punched in the mouth and knocked down onto the mat from the get-go.
“The players deserve all the credit,” UIC coach Steve McClain said. “Once the ball is tipped up, it goes in their hands. I thought they were as locked in they have been for the last three weeks. They knew what we wanted to do and it was a great team effort.”
In the first half, the Flames’ defense held the Raiders to just 7-27 shooting from the field, including 3-15 from inside the arc. On the glass, UIC out-rebounded Wright State by a margin of 24-14 in the opening 20 minutes, which was one of the reasons that the Flames were able to assert their will early.
“Rebounding got us in transition a lot. Our pace was a lot faster, as long as we get the rebound our transition game is unstoppable,” Ferguson said.
Out of the locker room, it was all Flames early on, just like it was in the first half. By the first media timeout, the lead had grown to 20 points. With 10 minutes to play, the lead was up to 25 and the rout was on.
Even though UIC delivered one of its best all-around defensive performances to date, its handling of Horizon League Player of the Year Loudon Love was vital to slowing down the Raiders’ attack. Love struggled all night as he only managed six points, which was his second-lowest total of the season.
“We wanted play really physical with him,” Ferguson said of the strategy to slow down Love, “we didn’t want to give him easy and catches. We just tried to make his looks a lot harder, and that’s what we did.”
For the Flames, it was a night that was long overdue for the trio of senior guards. Ferguson has started all 126 games of his UIC career. Marcus Ottey, who was second on the team in scoring with 13 points, has started alongside him for the last three seasons. And Godwin Boahen’s 131 career appearances are more than both of them. The trio combined for 28 of the team’s 41 points in the first half and 47 of the 73 on the night.
“All three of us are veterans, so we know coming into the game that we’ll have to take control of the game because we’re older,” Ferguson said. “The coaches do a nice job in our hands to control the game and the tempo.”
When the seas parted for Ottey as he rumbled down the lane for a wide open layup that served as an exclamation point on a resounding win, the Flames’ bench erupted. The reality had finally set in that they would advance to the Horizon League Championship for the first time since they won it in 2004.
But their postseason aspirations don’t stop there.
“When we came here in 2016 we had one goal in mind and it wasn’t to win the Horizon League, it was to go to March Madness,” Boahen said. “I just hope that we can accomplish that in our senior years.”
The Flames’ opponent will be 2 seed Northern Kentucky, which is looking to make its third NCAA Tournament in four years. To win a fourth game in this tournament, McClain said that they’ll have to continue to do what got them here.
“Our thing right now is no regrets,” he said. “When it’s over, you walk in that locker room, there’s no regrets.”
“I thought that’s how we played tonight and that’s how we’re going to play tomorrow. We’re going to play UIC basketball.”