MILWAUKEE – UIC maybe nicknamed the Flames, but the Panthers were the ones on fire in the second half of a 98-85 victory to close out the regular season at Panther Arena on Sunday. The senior forwards shined on Senior Day, as J.J. Panoske and Matt Tiby led Milwaukee with 20 and 19 points, respectively.
The three seniors, the other being reserve guard J.R. Lyle, were honored before the game and exited to a standing ovation at the end. Lyle knocked down two late threes that elicited a loud reaction from a somewhat sparse home crowd. He finished with eight points.
“First of all, I just want to say that two years ago, we got blown out by them (UIC) so it feels good beating them here,” said Lyle, diverting attention from his being a senior and recognized accordingly. “Like Coach (Rob Jeter) said, we all trust our roles, so, I mean, we’re good.”
“This group deserves it,” said Jeter. “You’re looking at three seniors here… there’s only one other group of seniors that have played four years at their school that have had a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament and do some of the things that these guys have done.”
“We have stuck together through some difficult times, we’ve learned some valuable lessons together, and we’ve won together. We’ve laughed together. We’ve cried together. For our guys to put up 19 wins this year and still going, it feels good for these guys because they have a chance now to play in the postseason.”
“It’s always fun playing with these guys,” said Tiby. “I’d do anything for them. They’re my brothers.”
UWM opened the second half on a 7-0 run that turned a 46-44 deficit into a five-point lead that would never switch hands. The run concluded when Panoske found Tiby on a transition layup.
The Flames would keep the Panthers lead in single digits until the halfway point in the second half, when the home squad exploded for a 21-8 run over a seven-plus minute stretch that effectively ended the game. Panoske and Tiby knocked down consecutive threes that blew the game open during the beginning of the flurry.
“The press really gave them some fits out there,” said Tiby. “Our attention to detail on defense became really well. People were talking, people were rotating, communicating… We always stress ‘Stop, score, stop’, and we were getting some of those and that helped us with that run.
Junior point guard Jordan Johnson, who set a Panther single-game assist record with 15, attempted to have a Spud Webb-like moment during the run, when he, standing at 5-9, went up for a dunk but came just short. Johnson also finished with 11 points and six rebounds.
“I asked him myself why he just didn’t lay it up with his left hand,” said Lyle. “I have no idea.”
“Was that a dunk attempt?” Jeter jokingly asked.
At halftime, local mascots that included Pounce the Panther, Bango (Milwaukee Bucks), Bernie Brewer and the Klements’ Racing Sausages (Milwaukee Brewers) played a shootaround to entertain the crowd.
The Flames were able to live up to their name a little past the midway point in the first half. Freshman star forward Dikembe Dixson scored 10 of the road squad’s first 20 points and punched down an emphatic fast-break one-handed jam at the 8:10 mark as part of a 9-0 run that turned a 22-20 Panthers lead into a seven-point deficit. Milwaukee would tie the game with a 7-0 run of its own following a timeout that was capped off by a three from junior forward Austin Arians. Arians finished with 19 points and six rebounds, along with knocking down five shots from downtown.
Panoske scored the first ten points of the game for UWM and finished with 14 in the first half. He knocked down two of his four threes during that opening stretch.
“It was 10-5 J.J. Panoske over UIC,” Jeter said, humorously.
“When you start off hot like that, it’s always something that tries to keep you going as the game goes on,” said Panoske. “But, you’ve got guys over here that are feeding me the ball and we’re a very unselfish team. Every other night we’ve got a different guy going off for 20, 25. So, obviously, it felt really good.”
Panoske and Tiby also controlled the boards for the Panthers, grabbing nine and eight, respectively. Junior swingman Akeem Springs finished with 13 points, including two second-half threes off feeds from Johnson.
Milwaukee finished the season 19-12, 10-8 in Horizon League play. The Panthers earned the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, and will face No. 8 seed Northern Kentucky in the first round on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, Mich. The Norse upended UWM, 75-71, in the teams’ last meeting in Highland Heights, Ky.