The young UIC Flames have already passed a few tests this season. They’ve overcome injuries and an 0-2 start in Horizon League play to win seven consecutive road games and position themselves for a shot at a conference title.
Now the Flames’ next test is simple, yet complicated: keep focused with their goals in front of them.
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“I saw the growth and the maturity coming. Now they go through the process of being in the moment, being in the fact that you are playing for a championship this weekend and understanding the significance of that,” coach Steve McClain said. “It’s the other part that’s sometimes good about young players, though. They don’t get distracted by that.”
UIC (17-12 overall, 12-4) enters the final weekend of the regular season one game behind co-leaders Wright State and Northern Kentucky. The Flames have a chance to win the Horizon League outright with a weekend sweep and wins by IUPUI over WSU and NKU.
Yet, regardless of what happens this weekend, the fact the Flames are in the middle of conference championship scenarios shows the growth of the program. As McClain said, the Flames are young, as three of their top four scorers are sophomores and they only have two seniors on the roster.
One of those seniors, forward/center Tai Odiase, has seen the development and experienced plenty of highs and lows. Two seasons ago, he played in all 30 games as the Flames sputtered to a 5-25 record. Last season, he appeared in 36 games to help UIC to the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational.
Odiase is now averaging 25 minutes a game for a team that could be weeks away from the NCAA Tournament and putting the cap on one of the best seasons in school history.
“It’s not fun losing at all. My first couple years we didn’t have as much success as we’re having now,” said Odiase, a Homewood-Flossmoor product. “Now that I’ve stuck around I’ve seen things change around, and the hard work is paying off. It’s a really good feeling.”
Odiase has reflected on where the UIC program was not too long ago and where it is now. That improvement is something he’s proud of.
“I do all the time. It wasn’t fun losing games and going back to the dorms and just sitting and thinking about the losses, walking around campus and no one’s interested because you’re losing,” Odiase said. “Now we’ve finally turned that around and I’m happier than ever.”
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