Flames' win over Illini could reap rewards

CHICAGO -- Being the sister school of Illinois, Illinois-Chicago is given the occasional gift by the Illini.

Illinois packs the United Center, slips UIC a cut of the gate, provides the Flames with some exposure, maybe lets them hang around for a bit and then ultimately delivers what the crowd came for -- a no-doubt-about-it Illini victory. Of the 13 times Illinois and UIC had met before Saturday, the Illini had won 12 of them.

On Saturday, UIC took charge of filling its own stocking, swiping the usual Illinois win in one of the bigger victories in Flames history -- a 57-54 win over No. 14 Illinois at the United Center.

Of the 13,117 fans who reportedly attended Saturday's game, the Flames were lucky if 10 percent belonged to them, despite their campus being a few bus stops away. None of it mattered to UIC's players, though.

"I think we knew it was going to be like that," said UIC senior guard Robo Kreps, who ignited the upset with three 3-pointers in the opening minutes and finished with a team-high 15 points.

"Midway through the second half, I finally took a look at the crowd, and I saw the second tier was orange and the third tier was orange. When they scored, obviously, the Illinois fans were loud. When we scored, it was kind of quiet. But we've been there before, we've played in some tough games, and I thought we fought through it really good today."

UIC defeating Illinois would be a big deal in any given season. The Illini are supposed to be the better team. Their coaches are paid more. Their recruits have more star power. Their players have more skill. They play in a better conference.

That was the case back in 1990, when UIC pulled off its other win. The Flames' 71-60 upset over the Illini in Champaign was a major achievement for the program then. But it'll probably be nothing like Saturday's win for UIC when history is revisited.

Saturday's victory may be the defining moment that makes the Flames relevant in the college basketball world again. If UIC is dancing in the NCAA tournament a few years from now, it likely will have something to do with Saturday.

The hiring of former Wisconsin assistant Howard Moore put a buzz around UIC's program. Everyone agreed Moore was a smart hire. He had recruited with success in the Chicago area. He had put in his time as an assistant and had learned from a variety of successful head coaches. The cherry on top was Moore's roots were Chicago-based. He was a born-and-bred Chicago player and coach. Everything fit.

Moore quickly built a solid recruiting class and got people optimistic about UIC. But like it does everywhere, the initial buzz began to die down for Moore as the season began. The talk became less about what UIC will do in the future and more about its current status. With the Flames starting off the season 4-7, there weren't many positives to discuss.

Saturday changed that.

If UIC had won at Pittsburgh to start the season, it would have meant less than defeating Illinois at the United Center.

By beating the home state power, one thought to be a Big Ten championship contender and an Elite 8 team (which may have been altered as well Saturday, but that's another story), on the Big Ten Network, before a massive Chicago crowd and with dozens of media outlets in attendance, Moore and UIC placed a major piece into their rebuilding puzzle.

Instantly, Moore earned additional credibility when it comes to recruiting. If "We just beat highly ranked Illinois," isn't the first sentence out of Moore's mouth in the coming weeks when talking to recruits, it will likely be the second. And with the Illini possessing a full cupboard of talented recruits coming in, some of Chicago's top players will be looking at places other than Champaign, and now UIC could be a legitimate option for them. The Flames could be a perfect place for a rising star like Hales Franciscan junior guard Aaric Armstead or Simeon sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn.

Moore understood immediately what the win could mean to his program.

"I think it's a tremendous deal," Moore said. "I think it could really give our program a shot in the arm in recruiting, obviously some exposure. My last few press conferences, I got to be honest with you, I haven't seen so many people. I almost sat down with you guys. I had no idea where to go."

The win also will likely be the top memory of the 2010-11 season for the Flames' seniors. While UIC showed it does have talent, it still has to go through the likes of Butler, Cleveland State and Detroit in the Horizon League.

Whatever happens the rest of the season, UIC's seniors will always be able to think back to the day they knocked off Illinois.

"It's always about your seniors," Moore said. "That's who our team should be playing for. They're obviously playing for me as the head coach, but you want your seniors to have moments like this to relish and to remember.

"This is something when Robo's 40 years old and has got a pot belly, we can sit back and talk about this over a beer. Because it's going to happen, Robo, your metabolism is going to slow down. It's just great to have these moments and share these moments with your team. That's why we do it. To have success, to see guys get degrees, that's the reasons why we should be in this."