Flames burn NIU at M-C tourney

By Wes Swietek

Everything about last week’s Mid-Continent Conference Tournament was too quick for the NIU men’s basketball team.

Too quick, as in too quick of an opponent in the opening game against 3rd-seed Illinois-Chicago and, as a result, too quick of an exit.

The speedy UIC Flames ended the 6th-seeded Huskies’ season with an 80-66 win in the first round of the tourney Sunday (March 8) at Goodman Arena.

The loss gave rookie NIU coach Brian Hammel’s squad a final mark of 11-17. UIC went on to make the Tourney Championship Game against Eastern Illinois, but fell 83-68 Tuesday (March 10), giving Eastern (17-13) an automatic bid to the NCAAs.

The Flames (who finished 16-14) made NIU their first victim by running down the Huskies.

After a nip-and-tuck first half which found UIC leading 30-29, the Flames started taking control.

UIC guard Kenny Williams sparked an 8-0 Flames run early in the second half as UIC built a commanding lead. The Flames sealed the win by hitting 14-of-16 free throws down the stretch. Williams and forward Brian Hill each scored 18 second-half points.

“I’m not sure we were in sync tonight,” Hammel said. “We need to be on all five cylinders. Tonight, we were not on all five cylinders. Their quickness was a big factor in the basketball game.”

“(Hill and Williams) stepped up in the second half and did the job for us,” Flames head coach Bob Hallberg said.

NIU seniors Brian Molis and Mike Hidden ended their careers with 12 (a team-high) and 11 points, respectively. Williams led UIC with 24.

The Flames went on to beat host Cleveland State in the semi-finals. League regular-season champs Wisconsin-Green Bay were upset in the other semi-final by eventual champions Eastern Illinois.

Sunday, UW-GB was snubbed by the NCAA selection committee, leaving the 25-4 Phoenix with a probable NIT bid. Eastern will face 2nd-seeded Indiana at the West Regional at Boise, Idaho Thursday.