Despite a loss to Western Kentucky University to complete its regular season, Rice basketball finished 21-10 (11-7 C-USA) and captured the fifth seed in the Conference USA tournament. The Owls rebounded from a slow start to the season by winning eight of their final 10 games, but ultimately fell one spot shy of securing a first round bye in the championship.
Instead, the Owls will face the No. 12 seed, the University of Southern Mississippi (9-21, 6-12 C-USA) in the first round of the tournament on Wednesday in Birmingham, Alabama. In their two previous matchups this season, Rice squeaked out wins in games that went down to the wire.
In the first game in mid-January, Rice held an 18 point lead at the half, but the Golden Eagles cut the deficit to two with six seconds left to play. After a series of exchanged free throws, Southern Miss attempted a game-tying full court shot as time expired, but the ball bounced off the back rim to give Rice a 61-58 win. Sophomore Marcus Evans and junior Egor Koulechov led the team with 17 and 16 points respectively, but the team shot just 36.7 percent from the field.
During their second matchup in late February, the Owls once again jumped out to a lead only to see it disappear in the final minute of the game. In overtime, the Golden Eagles held the ball with a one point lead with 10 seconds left, but Rice forced a turnover and Evans hit a layup with 1.9 seconds on the clock to give Rice the 72-71 OT win. Koulechov recorded a double-double with 26 points and 11 rebounds, but Rice was once again held below 40 percent shooting.
Head coach Mike Rhoades said he was happy the team was able to pull out the win, but acknowledged it was an imperfect victory.
“It pretty much sums up our season,” Rhoades said. “At times we played really well and at times we were just inconsistent. We just have to do a better job of taking better shots.”
If Rice wants to see its season extended past the first round, it will need its stars to keep producing. Evans led the team with 18.8 points per game and 3.9 assists per game, while Koulechov scored 18.5 points per game, grabbed a team high 8.9 rebounds per game and shot a conference high .471 from three point territory. Evans and Koulechov ranked third and fourth respectively in scoring in C-USA, and their efforts led them both to First Team All-Conference USA honors. Junior Marcus Jackson was also a key contributor with 12.2 points per game, and was named to the C-USA All-Academic Team.
If Rice is able to defeat Southern Miss, it will play the next day against the University of Texas, El Paso, a team that defeated the Owls 79-71 in their only matchup this season. Rice shot only 34.5 percent from the field in the game and faltered defensively, failing to make key stops and allowing 50 points in the second half.
However, if the Owls are to win the C-USA championship, the road will most likely go through Middle Tennessee State University (27-4, 17-1 C-USA), the tournament favorites. The Blue Raiders won the C-USA tournament last year, earning a bid to the NCAA tournament where they upset Michigan State University in the first round before falling to Syracuse University in the second. In their only matchup of the season, Koulechov recorded a double-double with 31 points and 14 rebounds and Evans added 23 points, but Rice’s comeback bid fell short as the team lost 80-77.
Despite the loss, Rice proved it can hang with anybody when it’s firing on all cylinders. The last time the Owls were in the conference tournament final was in 1958, when they lost to Texas Christian University 55-57, and the last time the Owls won the conference title was in 1954 when they beat Texas 72-71, but Rhoades said the team certainly has the potential to win the tournament.
“If we play fast and aggressive, take good shots and get each other shots, we’re a hard out for anybody,” Rhoades said.