Rice men’s basketball embraced the adage “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” on Saturday. After trailing 39-37 at the half, the Owls outscored the University of North Texas (6-12, 0-5) 64-40 in the second half to win 101-79 on Whiteout day at Tudor Fieldhouse. The 101 points were the most points Rice has ever scored in a Conference USA game. With the victory, the Owls snapped a two game losing streak and brought their record to 12-6 (2-3 in conference).
Junior forward Egor Koulechov led all scorers with 26 points and also pulled down a season-high of 15 rebounds. Koulechov has led the team in points and rebounds in five of the last six games, averaging a double-double over this span with 23.0 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. The former Israeli national team member entered the game as the second leading scorer in Conference USA (19.9 points per game) and the leader in 3-point percentage (.544).
This game, however, was more than just a one-man show, as four Owls scored in double figures. Sophomore point guard Marcus Evans scored 19 points, junior guard Marcus Jackson scored 17 points and sophomore forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis scored 11 points to go along with seven rebounds. According to head coach Mike Rhoades, the team must still work on limiting turnovers, but it has shown it can be a powerhouse when playing its best.
“That was a team effort,” Rhoades said. “I’m really proud of our guys. It wasn’t always pretty, but it’s the result we wanted. I liked our aggressiveness and thought we did a good job most of the game of guarding and making hard for [North Texas]. If we can just hold onto the basketball, we’ll be really good.”
The first half of the conference game featured a back and forth affair, with Rice jumping out to a quick 5-0 lead and extending it to 34-24 with 4:34 to go in the half, after a transition pullup three from Koulechov. However, the Mean Green responded by forcing Rice into three turnovers and limiting the Owls to just three shot attempts the rest of the half. The visitors ended the period on a 15-3 run to take a 39-37 halftime lead.
North Texas opened the second half by hitting four of six shots to build up a 48-41 lead, its largest of the game, but Rice immediately responded. Koulechov hit two free throws, Jackson converted a layup and Evans, fouled on a made jump shot, sank the ensuing free throw to tie the game. Evans then assisted Jackson on a 3-pointer to give Rice the lead, and the Owls would never look back. They closed the game on a 60-31 run to coast to victory.
With 53 seconds left in the game, freshman forward Robert Martin sank two free throws, his only points of the game in four minutes of action, to break the century mark and send the 2,749 fans at Tudor into a chorus of cheers. The point total was a season-high and it marked the third game this season in which the Owls scored 100 points or more (100-87 at the University of Nebraska Omaha and 100-93 vs. Northwestern State University).
For North Texas, senior guard J-Mychal Reese scored a team-high 18 points and junior forward Shane Tamara contributed a season-high 17 points, but it was not enough to overcome a Rice team that was firing on all cylinders.
The Owls shot 53.2 percent (33-62) from the field, including 44.4 percent (12-27) from 3-point range and 74.2 percent (23-31) from the free throw line on their way to their most dominant conference game of the year.
Koulechov and the Owls will look to build off of this win when they travel to Ruston, Louisiana to take on Louisiana Tech University (12-6, 4-1). Their next game at Tudor is on Jan. 26 when Rice looks to avenge a 6-point loss to Old Dominion University (11-7, 4-2) earlier in the year.