Rice men’s basketball had its season come to an end in the quarterfinals of the College Basketball Invitational, falling 85-79 to Utah Valley University. The Owls finished the year 23-12 and earned a postseason win, an 85-76 victory over the University of San Francisco in the first round of the CBI, for the first time in five years.
The Owls opened the game against Utah Valley hot, racing out to a 15-7 lead. The Wolverines immediately responded with a 14-0 run to take a 21-15 lead and did not trail again until late in the second half. Rice trailed by as much as 11 early in the second but stormed back to take a 67-66 lead with 8:53 remaining in the game. Then, a 3-pointer by sophomore guard Marcus Evans gave the Owls a four-point lead. Unfortunately for the Owls, the Wolverines his shots at the end of the game and finished on a 19-9 run to win by six.
Evans said the Owls did not play well enough to beat a talented Utah Valley team.
“They were better than us today,” Evans said. “They executed well and we weren’t able to execute down the stretch. That’s the reason we lost.”
Junior guard Egor Koulechov said Rice got complacent after its hot start in the first half.
“We got comfortable and went through a little slump,” Koulechov said. “We tried to overcome that but it takes a lot of energy to come back in a game.”
The crowd was loud all game long. At one point, a Rice fan was ejected by the referee and left to a standing ovation. Sophomore forward Marquez Letcher-Ellis threw down a tomahawk dunk in the first half that got the crowd to its feet, and late in the close game, fans were cheering virtually nonstop. Head coach Mike Rhoades said the packed student section meant a lot to him and his program.
“The one thing I said when I got here was we want everyone to enjoy this,” Rhoades said. “Even though it didn’t go the way we wanted it to, a lot of kids on this campus had fun tonight. That was really cool. We want to continue to do that.”
Despite the loss, Rice finished the season with the second-most wins in program history, 23. In Rhoades’ three seasons, the Owls have improved by 11 wins. Barring any transfers or departures, Rice will return all but one player, senior forward Andrew Drone, from this year’s team. For those reasons, Evans said there is a great deal of optimism heading into next season.
“Only time will tell [what the team can do next season],” Evans said. “We have a lot of talent on this team.”
For now, Rice will head to the offseason. The players will train and practice and the coaches will do their best to scout and recruit talented high school players to fortify future teams. Rhoades said this year’s successful season will help with recruiting moving forward.
“People want to play for a winner,” Rhoades said. “We are going into people’s homes and [saying], ‘We’re 23-12.’ Guys want to play that way. That’s fun.”
Reflecting on the season, Evans said he is happy with what the team was able to accomplish.
“I couldn’t be more proud of everyone in the program,” Evans said. “What we accomplished this year is nothing to hold our heads down about. We did some things that haven’t been done here in a long time.”
Evans and his teammates will have another chance to set new records next year when the Owls open their season with nonconference play in November. They will be looking to improve on this season’s quarterfinal berth in the CBI and fifth place finish in Conference USA.