Big James and Avo Lead the Way in 71-66 Firefight Victory Over UIC

You could see it in their puzzled faces. UIC fans, players, and coaches alike stood in jaw-dropped awe as UWM's #55, "Big James" Eayres drilled 3 point basket after 3 point basket from nearly every spot on the perimeter. This occurred mostly in the second half, and helped to solidify the Panthers lead, which was cushioned at around 5 points for most of last night's contest. Big James outburst was a microcosm of the contest between Lake Michigan rivals UWM and UIC. There would be no stopping the Panthers offensive arsenal on this night.

UIC got off to a quick start, but the Panthers of Milwaukee kept the Flames in check until they could make their own set of runs. Eventually, Ricky Franklin (13pts, 7rbs, 5ast, 2stl) ignited UWM's kindling of potential, which then burst into a blaze that engulfed the bewildered opposition (Ricky was the real, "lighting of the flame" -or rather the start of Milwaukee's "dousing of the Flames").

The Panthers knew that the key to this game would be containing (not "shutting down"- that ain't going to happen) UIC's Josh Mayo (18pts) and Scott VanderMeer (16pts). They did a great job of this last night. Mayo fouled out in the closing minutes, and VanderMeer, while very solid on the blocks, was not as automatic with his post-ups and hook shots as he was going up against Tim Flowers, Marcus Skinner, and Jason Averkamp last year.

Avo sunk an unbelievable buzzer-beating three to close out the first half and give Milwaukee a one point edge 34-33. That three turned out to be critical as UIC scored the first four points of the second. UWM kept pounding the ball through the lane and from beyond the arc to build up a lead that lasted virtually all of the second half. Ricky Franklin was on Josh Mayo like glue, and Mayo could not find the kind of shot selection he is so used to having at his disposal.

Continuing their habit of prolific scoring and spreading the ball around, UWM put 5 scorers in double digits (Meier (12), Boyle (14), Franklin (13), Smith (15), and Eayres (15)). That alone says more about this team's potential than anything else I've noticed this entire year. Every single night out- we've got options. If Avo has an off night, Rick or Big James might pick up the slack. It's a huge relief to have several go-to guys after consecutive seasons where it seemed only one or two Panthers were reliable shooters.

Also worth noting- the Panthers were 12-13 (.923) from the charity stripe, and 13-32 (.406) from beyond the arc. That kind of shooting will win a lot of basketball games. Lets hope the team can keep it up. It may be (Loyola, Valparaiso, and Green Bay will tell a lot more, but..) that after two years of futility, UWM is back on the radar of the top Horizon League teams. The win last night served as notice to the likes of Butler and CSU- the Milwaukee Panthers are no cupcake this year. At least not when they play like they did last night.

Keep in mind, while this is by no means the biggest win the Panthers will have all year- UIC defeated Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech earlier this season- on the road. A 3-0 start to conference play is as good a start as anyone could have hoped for. The entire season is built around the conference schedule, and getting off to a great start will negate some of the (often) inevitable slip-ups that occur later in the season.

Jeter and staff seem to have finally found a consistent rotation that works. While it may seem a bit much to leave Ricky and Tone in for entire games- they are warriors; they are our best options; and they can play at a very high level all 40 minutes. Like Anthony Hill, Tony Meier, Avery Smith, Deonte Roberts, and James Eayres- they give us the best chance to win.

In a way, it is tough to watch Deion, Averkamp, Kaylan, Charlie and others not get significant playing time; but that very fact speaks volumes about the talent level this team has risen to. In '06-'07, literally all of the players just mentioned would have a chance at starting. Now we can afford to have them as reserves- and make no mistake, any one (or likely all) of these players will make huge contributions before its all said and done.

The season is long, matchups change every game, and we need all the Panther talent we can get on the bench and off the bench. Oh and one last thing about last night- Tim Flowers was at the game, he said he wants back on the team. Sorry Tim. Only kidding- a couple UWM fans actually ran into Flowers in the UIC Pavillion and he mentioned that he is all ready to transfer to UIC and play for Jimmy Collins next season. Oh my, how splendid of a homecoming that first game back in Milwaukee will be for not-so-tiny Tim.

It appears that 11 (52%) of those here who voted guessed correctly that the Panthers' record at the close of the 2008 year would be a solid 7-5 (I was hoping for 8-4, but I'll take what we can get!). Any ideas for a new poll? Send them my way via a comment... With this, the third consecutive league victory, the Panthers (7-5, 3-0) sit alone (briefly) atop the Horizon.

With the likes of Butler, Cleveland State, Green Bay, and Valparaiso that are sure to be big-time challenges, and other Horizon teams that could surprise people waiting in the wings, the remainder of the season will be one helluva slug fest. Should the Panthers continue to put together complete 40-minute efforts like this on a consistent basis, a top 3 spot in the Horizon League is definitely attainable. Unless Butler gets an at-large bid and someone else wins the Horizon League tournament, only one Horizon team will be invited to the Big Dance.

You better believe the Panthers are doing everything they can to play like champions in that Tournament (the Horizon- and the NCAA's, whenever they get back..). But for now- it's all conference, baby. UWM faces Loyola at the Gentile Center in Chicago this Saturday, January 3rd at 3:00pm. The game will be broadcast on Time Warner Sports Channel 32, as well as 1130 AM WISN on radio. Tune in to see the Panthers attempt to extend their winning mentality another game. Hopefully, this will be a pair of Chicago road trips to remember.

Player of the Game (POTG): James Eayres (15 points, 6 rebounds, 5-9 from 3pt)