CHICAGO - The idea behind the ESPN Bracket Buster was to give some of the mid-major programs a chance to be showcased on national television just a few weeks before the NCAA Tournament selection committee decides who gets invited to this year's party.
The expectation was that a strong showing might lead to good fortune on Selection Sunday.
Illinois-Chicago hopes that its 83-72 win over Bowling Green State University yesterday at the UIC Pavilion will do just that. The Flames (18-7) were in a much better position to make some NCAA Tournament mileage out of the game than the Falcons (10-13) were.
“This was a really good opportunity for us, and a really good game for us to win,” UIC coach Jimmy Collins said, “because Bowling Green plays very hard and they do a lot of things right. We beat a very good basketball team.”
BG coach Dan Dakich said the Bracket Buster would have benefited his team more last year, when the Falcons went 24-9 and did not make the NCAA field, but that the exposure is always a positive thing.
“I am thrilled to death and very proud that they asked us to be in this, because I think it's a neat thing,” Dakich said. “I'm just disappointed that we weren't able to make this a better basketball game down the stretch.”
This whole concept probably looked a lot more tantalizing when it was announced back in the summer. At that point, the Falcons had not yet experienced the injuries and personnel problems that have reduced the ranks to just six scholarship players by late February. The Falcons have dropped six straight games, and nine of their last 11.
Yesterday was Bowling Green's first game without junior point guard Jabari Mattox, who tore up his knee in practice last week and is done for the season. Mattox is the third starter who has suffered a season-ending knee injury for the Falcons.
“On a lot of teams - when you get injuries - then other guys step up,” Collins said, “and I think their other guys picked it up today. The good part is that my guys knew all about the injuries Bowling Green has had to deal with, but we didn't let up because of it.”
After leading early in the game, the Falcons fell behind midway through the first half and trailed by as many as 20 points with under five minutes left in the game. A strong finish allowed BG to close the gap to as few as 10 points in the final minute. John Reimold led BG with 22 points, while Kevin Netter scored 18, and Raheem Moss and Ronald Lewis had 11 each.
“We looked good early when we were getting the ball down the floor and going, but our problem was simply, we didn't stay with the things we need to stay with,” Dakich said. “But we were very proud to be asked to be a part of this.”
The Falcons had success pushing the ball inside to Netter early in the game and moved out to an 11-4 lead in the first four minutes. Illinois-Chicago raced back quickly, using a 12-6 run to cut the BG lead to 17-16 with about 13 minutes left in the first half.
The Flames were off to the races on every possession, and got a boost from senior Jonathon Schneiderman, who came off the bench to hit a trio of 3-pointers as UIC moved in front. The Flames drove the ball, then kicked it out to Schneiderman, and his 3-pointer from the corner with about four minutes left in the first half pushed UIC in front 32-25.
BG got sloppy with the ball and made 11 first-half turnovers, and that played into UIC taking a 42-30 lead at the break.
In the second half the Falcons suffered through a lengthy scoring drought from the field, going almost eight minutes between field goals.
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