Saturday, December 12, 2015

An unlikely duo steps up for UIC, but comes up short against Illinois

                                                     Photo Credit: Geno Green

At 1-5 and in desperate need of a win and production on offense, the University of Illinois-Chicago turned to an unlikely source in freshman Dominique Matthews on Saturday against Illinois.

Coming into the game, Matthews averaged 7.0 PPG, good enough for third on the Flames.

Matthews would score 18, but fouled out with 3:49 left and UIC fell to 1-6 in an 83-79 loss to Illinois (6-5) at the United Center in Chicago, Ill.

Dikembe Dixson's emergence in the second half played a major part as he led the Flames in scoring (20) and rebounding (10). 

Despite Matthews' dominant first half and Dixson's double-double, Flames coach Steve McClain knows there is room for more improvement and felt like in his eyes that each player is a freshman, regardless of class.

"They are learning to get more comfortable," McClain said. "They are also learning what our system is and I really have 13 freshmen, so I think they are relaxing by each game and are getting a feel for their teammates. That's why [we] got easier shots today."

Matthews and Dixson's stats reflected McClain's philosophy as they combined for 38 points on 13-of-21 from the field.

After a mistake filled first minute by both teams, Matthews stepped up as if it the last 10 seconds were on the clock in regulation and scored 14 of UIC's first 15 points with ease and a collective swagger.

"As Dikembe would tell you, I am probably as hard on him and [Dominique] right now as you can be because I need them to grow up as freshmen and play like veterans," McClain said. "I thought [Dominique] came out and relaxed. I thought he didn't force anything and got into a rhythm. That's a maturity builder for our team."

The bigger takeaway from Matthews' performance was starting off 5-of-5 shooting, highlighted a couple of long-range makes.

The Illini eventually tightened their defense in the latter stages of the first half with Matthews being the only option on offense at the time with 16 of the 17 points, either scoring or assisting. Illinois' leading scorer Kendrick Nunn's length gave Matthews problems off the ball as a result.

The Flames' inability to find another scorer proved costly as their lead of seven points would turn into a 12-point deficit towards the end of the first half.

Down 41-30 at the end of the first half, UIC knew it would need another player other than Matthews to step up.

The turning point came as Matthews committed his fourth foul at the 18:13 mark and was benched as a result and UIC went on a 14-0 run in the process with Dixson as the catalyst on offense.

Dixson would lead the Flames to a 14-0 run with nine points during the stretch. 

Matthews would return with 4:09 left in the game. However, 20 seconds later and the game tied at 66, the freshman committed his fifth foul and was disqualified as a result.

The Flames would not gain the lead again after Matthews' fifth foul and would go on to lose by four points.

As the old saying goes, Rome was not built in overnight and for UIC, the same applies and the process will be long and grueling in order for results to show once Horizon League begins on Jan. 2 at Valparaiso.

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