Both the Ramblers and Flames held on for great Horizon League victories on New Year's Eve.
Loyola moved to 11-2 (2-1) with a thrilling 53-52 victory over Wright State. The Raiders are one of the favorites in the Horizon League along with Butler and for the Ramblers to get a victory over Brad Brownell's team is a great step. The game was very intense defensively. Even though both teams topped 60 possessions neither could top even 55 points.
UIC is now 5-8 (1-2) and on a two-game winning streak after defeating Detroit 60-56 on Thursday. The Titans are a team some people thought would be a sleeper in the Horizon League this season, but they ran into a buzzsaw of energy at the Pavilion from the Flames. While the Horizon League TV feed wasn't working, I listened to the game on ESPNRadio and was very impressed by the Flames holding on for the victory even though they shot 28% from the floor.
Further Loyola thoughts:
The Ramblers were led by Walt Gibler. He scored 15 points
including 9-12 free throw shooting from the line. Loyola used a good
high-low game early in the first half to build a 13-point lead, but
even when Wright State caught on the Ramblers were able to battle and
get key stops. Geoff McCammon hit the biggest basket of the night, a three-point shot that gave the Ramblers life late.
McCammon finished with 14 points and 2 steals. The junior guard has developed into a consistent scoring weapon for the Ramblers. It was good that Loyola got boosts from Gibler and McCammon in this game because leading scorer Terrance Hill was in foul trouble for most of the game. He picked up two quick fouls early in the second half and scored 4 points in 18 minutes.
The work of Andy Polka on the glass also cannot be commended enough. Polka always seems to be in the right position. He grabbed 10 rebounds, dished out 5 assists and had a key block. He doesn't need to score to impact a game and that's very important considering how many other weapons the Ramblers have on offense.
Overall I thought Jim Whitesell also did a very good job of managing the game. His substitution patterns with Polka, Gibler and Ben Averkamp seem to work well keeping every player rested and allowing the team to ride a hot hand. Also, while Whitesell used a number of timeouts early in the second half to quell Wright State runs, it turned out to be very smart. It's not often you'll see a college coach use that many timeouts that early, but each situation seemed to warrant the call and in the end he got the necessary result.
Loyola's next game is against Detroit on Saturday at 3 p.m.
Further UIC thoughts:
Robo Kreps was excellent in this game. He scored 31 points on 18-18 from the free throw line and 5-10 shooting from the floor (3-5 from 3-point range). If he plays this type of game consistently the Flames will always have a chance. Kreps has the ability to be a scorer in the Horizon League and even against a tall Titans lineup he was able to make plays. Part of the reason Kreps has been so effective lately is the return of Spencer Stewart. Stewart had 7 assists on Thursday as he continued to be an effective play-maker for the Flames.
Talk about defense. The defensive tenacity the Flames show at the Pavilion is incredible. I wish that it would carry over on the road. Allowing a team to score 55 points in 70 possessions in absolutely fantastic. UIC forced 23 turnovers and kept Detroit off the free throw line. While the Titans did get 10 offensive rebounds, the team is very tall. This type of defensive effort can win at least a few more games in the Horizon League.
Even though he shot 2-10 from the field and committed 5 fouls, Jeremy Buttell should be commended for his work underneath as well. He grabbed 12 rebounds in 37 minutes and UIC needed every single one. Buttell is 5th in the Horizon League in rebounding and needs to continue crashing the glass.
Detroit was limited a bit in this game due to early foul trouble for sophomore forwards Eli Holman and Chase Simon. This was a very good victory for the Flames. UIC takes on Wright State at 3 p.m. on Saturday.
General Horizon League thoughts:
After Butler the name of the game in the Horizon League is parity. Any team can beat any other team by defending home court. The entire Horizon League has played tough games against elite major conference and mid-major competition and while sometimes the wins aren't there these teams have been run through a ringer in terms of competition.
There are just three teams left in the Horizon League with zeroes in a column as Cleveland State and Youngstown State are both winless in conference and Butler is undefeated. It is truly a race to the middle and one bad weekend on the road isn't going to kill any team. But you have to defend home court to be a factor in the Horizon League this season. You can't let the close games get away.
The teams that win the 53-52 games when they don't play their best basketball are the teams that are going to come out near the top of the league standings. No matter what, it is going to be a very interesting 2010.