Throughout Conference USA play, the men's basketball team has garnered attention for its inconsistent, up-and-down style of play, as Rice (16-12, 7-6 C-USA) has not had a winning streak of more than two games or a losing streak of more than three since conference play started in early January. This past week showed that that brand of play was still alive, for better or worse.
The Owls took a trip north to Tulsa to face the University of Tulsa (16-11, 9-4 C-USA), a team that Rice had yet to defeat since it joined C-USA in 2005. That streak continues; the Owls stuck with Tulsa for the first 30 to 35 minutes of the game before turning the ball over repeatedly in the final minutes, changing the game from a closely fought contest to a 69-50 blowout win for Tulsa. The first half was a back-and-forth affair, with Rice holding a slim lead for the first nine and a half minutes of the game, thanks to 10 combined points from junior guard Tamir Jackson and sophomore center Omar Oraby. With seven minutes left in the half, the tide started to turn toward the Golden Hurricane, who built a five-point lead behind the shooting of guard Jordan Clarkson. The lead stretched to seven with six seconds left, but Jackson nailed a three-point shot with one second left to close the gap to four and send Rice to the locker room down 33-29.
At this point, Tulsa was dominating points in the paint thanks to the size of its forwards and had 10 second-chance points to Rice's zero. Still, the teams were near-even in shooting percentage, although the Golden Hurricane had capitalized from beyond the arc, shooting 43 percent from three-point range.
Four missed shots in the first four minutes of the second half for Rice gave Tulsa a 10-point lead with 16 minutes to play. The combination of Clarkson and Steven Idlet torched the Owls for 41 points throughout the game and kept Rice from getting closer than four points until eight minutes left to play. After a scoring drought that saw both teams go scoreless for three and a half minutes, senior forward Lucas Kuipers drained a three-point shot, and senior guard Connor Frizzelle's pair of free throws with 7:47 to go put Rice down by two. The rest of the game was a disaster for Rice. The Owls scored three points the rest of the way, and four turnovers and nine straight missed field goals destroyed any hope of a Rice upset. The aforementioned size advantage for Tulsa eventually manifested itself in a big way, as the Golden Hurricane went on to out-rebound Rice 41 to 27, contributing to Rice's demise along with its 33.3 percent second-half field goal percentage. Frizzelle and Oraby were the only Owls in double figures, as junior forward Arsalan Kazemi had just two points and was 0-5 from the field.
However, Rice rebounded with a victory on Wednesday at Tudor Fieldhouse over the University of Central Florida (19-8, 8-5 C-USA). With the Knights looking to solidify their NCAA Tournament resume as a bubble team, they got off to a big start, posting a 20-9 lead at the 14:23 mark of the first half and continuing to hold a double-digit lead for the next five minutes. Oraby had six of the Owls' first 11 points, with Kuipers adding five points during the middle part of the half. Meanwhile, UCF guard Keith Clanton continued to drive past the Owls' defense for easy layups for the first 11 minutes of the game. A.J. Rompza and P.J. Gaynor lit up from beyond the arc to push UCF's advantage to 49-37 at halftime as the Owls looked like they would allow the Knights to pass the century mark. Clanton's 16 points led UCF, while freshman guard Dylan Ennis was a one-man show at point for the Owls, leading the team in points (10) and rebounds (3) at halftime.
Head Coach Ben Braun must have lit a fire underneath the Owls at halftime, as Frizzelle, Jackson and freshman forward Jarelle Reischel came out firing in the second half, combining for 13 points to erase the Knights' lead to just one. The next 13 minutes were a dogfight, with neither squad leading by more than four. UCF, which shot a flabbergasting 70 percent from the field in the first half, came crashing down to earth, shooting just 33.3 percent in the second half. Finally, an emphatic dunk by Reischel with 7:36 to go brought the Owls to a tie with the Knights. After another layup from Clanton, Rice took the lead for good, with Kazemi making five straight free throws and Frizzelle making two free throws of his own to stave off an ice-cold UCF squad. With a robust student section in attendance, the Owls completed one of their biggest comebacks of the season against a top C-USA team, winning 83-74. Balanced scoring was the name of the game for Rice in the second half, with seven players scoring five or more points in the final 20 minutes, led by Jackson's nine. Clanton was held to one bucket the entire second half, and Reischel, Kazemi, Jackson and Ennis all posted double figures in scoring for the Owls.
The win puts Rice into a tie with the University of Alabama at Birmingham (12-14, 7-6 C-USA) and the University of Texas-El Paso(14-13, 7-6 C-USA) in the conference standings. The Owls will head to Hattiesburg, Miss., on Saturday to take on the University of Southern Mississippi (22-6, 9-4 C-USA), which dropped an overtime contest to UTEP on Wednesday. The Miners have now taken down the Golden Eagles and the University of Memphis (20-8, 10-3 C-USA), the top two squads in C-USA, and are the Owls' next opponent after Southern Miss on Feb. 29.